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Message Two, November 15, 2009
By Pastor Doug Slagle, The Gathering UCC
©Doug Slagle, 2010; all rights reserved.
Carl Jung, the great cognitive theorist, once said, “Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart. Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens.”
As we take another step in our four Sunday consideration of the “Values that Define Us”, I want to explore today the inner journey we all take and which I also believe is a principle that defines who we are as a congregation.
When I first walked into this space almost three years ago, I was struck by the comfort and easy acceptance I found here. And, as I came to understand the Gathering even more over the next weeks and months, I found a confidence and openness in the congregation.
Within the Gathering are straight couples, gay couples, transgendered, fluid, agnostic, Christian, liberal, moderate, activist, vegan, omnivore, atheist, Buddhist, single, partnered, married, divorced and hundreds of other descriptions that each person wears openly and proudly. People are authentic here.
Any group will have members who are distinctive but very few will comprise those who expressly choose not to conform and who quietly but confidently live authentically as they really are. To a man who grew up in a white, wealthy, suburban, Anglo-Saxon and outwardly straight culture, the Gathering is a whole new world. It is, as I said, a place where authenticity is welcomed and generally practiced.
Being true to self, confidently self-aware and practicing inner integrity are values that I believe define us – individually and collectively. Is pride in one’s identity, then, a spiritual value? Is truth-telling to oneself important? Can we seek Divine Truth or God, if you will, if we do not know and understand ourselves?
And, to the extent that life is a journey, do we ever really understand the depths of ourselves – what gives us our personalities, idiosyncrasies and even flaws?
Finally, is it important to us as a congregation that we are authentic to our own unique identity as a Church and that we continue to grow in that value?
Carl Gustav Jung and his Jungian form of analytical psychology is experiencing a bit of a renaissance lately. The New York Times has excitedly reviewed the upcoming release of Jung’s famous Red Book, which has been, until now, unpublished and closely guarded by his family.
In it, Jung reveals his spiritual and dream journey during a year of his life when he consciously sought dream and hallucinatory experiences so he could better understand his own psyche. He actively sought mythological and spiritual books so that he could better inform his dreams and find those areas of his psyche that focused on the various things he read.
His belief that a person’s interior life could be deeply explored has induced millions of people into psychotherapy in order to better understand how and why they think and act.
In this grand exploration of the psyche, Jung believed that spirituality is at work and that through self-examination and self-awareness, enlightenment and healing takes place. Primarily using his own formulated set of personality archetypes and his own method for the analysis of dreams, Jung believed that we are understood and defined by what goes on in the deep ocean of our minds.
Exploring this inner realm, we not only gain greater insight into ourselves, but we will also begin to understand some of the great spiritual questions we all ask–
Why am I here?
What meaning do I have?
How do I relate with those around me and with the wider universe?
How do I find joy, peace and authentic contentment?
In talking about Jung with Don Fritz the other day, he explained that his own understanding of Jung’s theory is that there is a separation between one’s outward Personna and one’s true – capital S – Self. This Self is the authentic inner person that we are – the complex amalgam of one’s desires, feelings, passions, thoughts and experiences. Jung believed that we each project a Personna of who we want the world to see. This may or may not be consistent with our capital S – Self. Our search for the Self is both a guide and goal, as Don relates, in that it can be a journey to discover the real us or it may be a dead-end street. We can simply choose to leave our deeper Self unexplored while we project an incomplete Personna to the outside world.
While Jung’s dream analysis form of therapy is not universally practiced by therapists, his basic principles are – that it is spiritually, emotionally and psychologically healthy to know oneself as much as possible.
Contemporary psychological theory holds that self-awareness involves the individual evaluating his or her behavior and then comparing that with one’s personal values, beliefs and standards. Is there consistency or inconsistency? How self-aware was I twenty years ago when I compared my outward efforts to appear and act as a heterosexual but inwardly saw a gay man?
The problem arises when one lies even to one’s inner self.
That is what I frequently did. I wanted to be straight and so my inner voices rationalized. How does one avoid such a trap?
Many experts believe that working through such a psychological trap can involve asking oneself a series of questions – and honestly responding – thus revealing succeeding layers of truth about oneself. For example, I might ask myself:
What kind of people do I enjoy spending time with?
If I answered that I liked open minded people, I might then ask “Why do I enjoy open minded people?”
To which I might respond “If they are open minded, they won’t make fun of my thoughts and actions.”
And the next layer of question might be “Why is it important to me that I not be made fun of?”
Well, “Because if I am made fun of, I feel bad about myself.”
“Why does feeling bad about myself have something to do with being made fun of?”
To which I might answer, “Because it means people do not accept me as I am and that means I am not OK.”
“How do others not accepting me mean I am not OK?”
Whereupon I might conclude, “Hmmmm. I guess I am OK without being accepted by all people.”
In this simplistic and brief examination of the type of questions one can ask oneself, there are principles of
giving specific and not general answers,
being totally honest and
being totally non-judgmental about what one thinks or feels – As Erna recently told me, echoing a Buddhist priest, “Be gentle with yourself”.
I have a much longer set of questions one can ask oneself in order to reach greater self-awareness. I have these available if anyone wants to take one after the service.
Carl Sagan once said “We make ourselves significant by the courage of our questions and the depth of our answers.”
And, I believe, that is a primary value and aspiration here at the Gathering…
It is the pursuit of self-awareness and authenticity that I find prevalent in this congregation. Indeed, I believe it forms the basis for our unique form of spirituality.
In my life as a closeted gay man, I consciously sought to deny and repress the real me – one who yearns for real intimacy and who, because of bio-chemistry, DNA, my nurture as a child or some mix of all three, is a homosexual man.
I was not able, until I came out as gay, to explore my own self-awareness.
Guilt and shame kept the very nature of who I am as a person locked away. I felt compelled to conform to the dominant standards of our culture.
And, as if to completely eradicate the gay demons within me – as I at the time perceived them to be – I turned to the Christian God for the forgiveness and the power he supposedly had. Of course, he did not possess such power.
I am who I am. And, according to Don Fritz, my final acceptance of who I am may not have been just about being true to myself. It was about finding fulfillment and greater self-actualization.
What startled me so much about the Gathering is the authenticity of each member. Consistent with that self-awareness is the fact that this is a place where one is accepted as he or she is – and there is no expectation or demand that one must change.
This is a congregation of grace and not of works – in other words we collectively extend grace and acceptance to one another that is NOT dependent on
or gender –
It is dependent on nothing except for the intrinsic worth and beauty of each individual!
When Billy Graham used to preach at his crusades he called non-Christians forward to the altar and told them to “come just as you are.” That always had a nice and welcoming tone to it.
But, without condemning Billy Graham, implicit in his message was come as you are, but then you must change – come as you are, all sinful and dirty and nasty, and then meet Jesus Christ who will impel you to change and become pious, moral and sin-free.
In stark contrast to that appeal, at the Gathering, we ask others to “come as you are without any conditions – and we will encourage, support and celebrate your differences while welcoming you fully into our midst”.
This unconditional love and acceptance is lived out regularly here, and that leads to the empowerment of each person to be self-aware, to be authentic, and to be proud and confident with themselves.
This acceptance of ourselves and of each other is due to our value of looking inward for the divine – for what is wonderful and joyous and unique.
I believe this is because we are open, at the Gathering, to explore all beliefs and all religions – even atheism. In any of the non-traditional religious systems and churches – like the Gathering – we find far more introspection and concentration on the inward journey.
Buddhism, Hinduism, the Jewish mystics of Kabbalah, Islamic Sufism, New Age Spirituality and, yes, humanistic atheism, all encourage inner searching and inner expression of the Divine.
Instead of reaching outward for a transcendent god – that being a god outside the material world,
these faiths encourage a look inside the person for an immanent god – that is a god of cognition or within the mind.
I believe our values and beliefs are not found in answers commanded to us from a holy book or that the supernatural force we seek is transcendent, upwards and outside of us.
That male constructed idea of god is autonomous, apart from us, and sovereign by himself. He has all of the power and divinity while humanity has none.
We believe, instead, that god is not out there, he is in here, in our hearts, minds and emotions – in our moral imagination.
This is not a theistic god but a thoroughly human one who is expressed in our deepest thoughts, impulses and motivations.
This is what Jung believed we must seek and it is that god that I believe this congregation actively seeks.
James Nelson, in his book The Intimate Connection, describes this way of believing as having what are regarded as feminine characteristics.
It is a way of spirituality that embraces the divine power of
Sadly, those characteristics have generally been called feminine traits.
These are considered to be contrary to established Christian religions and organizations that define themselves with male created
The value here at the Gathering is, instead, to embrace the value of looking inward to find mystery and to embrace, as we discussed last week, cooperation, collaboration, and acceptance of differences in each person – in other words,
the god-force or the moral imagination we all possess. I see in this congregation a willingness to forsake external power, control and a theistic, male dominant God.
The dictatorial God of the Bible, the patriarchal God of Jesus Christ is, in my belief, not valid here. What is valid and what is celebrated – along with a whole pantheon of historic, wise teachers – is the Jesus of history – a human being of wisdom, enlightenment and insights worthy of our attention and study.
The supernatural Jesus Christ, who is NOT the Jesus of history, tells us that he alone is the only way to understand Divine Truth and god – and that he alone is the way to heaven. That Jesus Christ said “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Such a figure is external to
others have defined him for us
and the majority of Jesus Christ’s teachings require blind obedience instead of introspection, questioning and searching.
And, he does not offer much understanding for our inner selves since to believe exclusively in that mythological Jesus Christ is to look outward instead of inward.
The historical Jesus, the one whom we must look for in the midst of stories written by men centuries later, was one often in the company of women, who valued female contributions and wisdom, and who defended female rights and ways above that of the ruling male elite.
This Jesus of history was tender, emotional, and sensitive and he appears to have understood and been confident with his inner, so-called feminine self. In truth, these were not and are not strictly feminine traits.
Jesus of history was a great MAN precisely because he was not the macho warrior king so many of his day, and our day, want to make him be.
This Jesus is not dictatorial, demanding and asking us to obey an outward god. He directs us to an inner god. In many of his most significant contacts, Jesus supported and interacted with women—
the poor widow derided by male elites for donating to the church a penny but defended by him for proportionally giving a huge amount;
the woman caught in adultery and about to be stoned by men – protected and supported by Jesus;
the woman with a bleeding issue – likely suffering from menstrual problems and seen as unclean and unworthy by religious male elites – touched and soothed by Jesus;
the frequently divorced woman at the well befriended by Jesus;
and the several women whom he sought and celebrated for their tenderness as they used their long, flowing hair to anoint his body with oil.
The Jesus of history calls us to be in touch with our inner selves who seek genuine intimacy with others. And by doing so, we find a god of beauty, truth and love deep inside. The Jesus Christ of traditional Christianity calls humanity to look outside ourselves to a patriarchal, dogmatic and demanding God.
Thus by understanding the teachings of the Jesus of history – along with other enlightened persons – we can better understand ourselves.
And, by that self-awareness, we are true to ourselves as individuals and as a congregation. We are not perfect but we lack much of the deception, hypocrisy and insincerity found in many other churches and congregations.
It is Jesus of history who calls us to personal authenticity. As much as I could hide in a Christian closet and believe myself supposedly cured by the outward God of my gay sexuality, it was not so.
By looking inward and discovering part of my true capital S – Self, and by making that a part of my outward Personna, I was able to finally be real – and in that reality to finally find peace.
Arriving here at the Gathering where so many practice and seek this personal truth telling, who live authentically and who have deeply known themselves for a long time, I was astonished.
Indeed, Jesus said “You can know truth, and truth will set you free.”
The freedom to be able to tell oneself that
I think this way or
I want this or
I feel that way
is truly liberating. Of course, one must avoid intellectual speculation about what one believes should be true. The value of our congregation and of its members is –
to know what we honestly feel and believe,
to live freely as we are,
to celebrate and support that freedom in one another,
and to each live such freedom out in our own ways.
And, beyond our individual selves, this church celebrates its own collective freedom to believe, practice and act as it understands divine truth. We do not claim to fully know that truth, nor do we claim that our way is right above all others, but in our freedom to be as we are, this congregation is not fettered by the bonds of rigid creed, of patriarchal leadership or of ancient mythologies.
Freedom brings responsibility
to search for truth,
to seek the holiness in ourselves,
to love ourselves and one another,
to cooperate and
to be genuine.
Echoing the words of Martin Luther King Jr., here at the Gathering,
“…all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, are able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
What, then, does Jesus, this person of history, tell us about ourselves?
In a male dominant society and religion, Jesus was an iconoclast who moved and acted in non-conformity to cultural expectations of him.
He wore such differences with confidence, he acted in ways commonly seen as feminine but which are, instead, human values worthy of respect.
Is this Jesus the one whom we want to know?
Is this Jesus the one who calls us to an inward look?
Is he one who validates our differences, our sexuality, our longing for genuine connection and intimacy?
Is he one among many wise men and women who help lead us on a path of inner discovery?
One final nuance of personal authenticity is, I believe, honesty in communication to ourselves and to others. Implicit in this value is self-love.
Nelson, in his book, states that this value is once again contrary to prevailing religious ethics. Self-love, in many traditional religions, is a sin and is counter to self-denial and the love of god which are seen as virtues.
But, – Nelson says, self-love is not narcissistic and arrogant but a genuine acceptance and honest appraisal of oneself.
For me, this value is still a struggle. I find it difficult to be honest about my abilities or my personhood –
self-deprecation comes more naturally as does avoidance of my flaws.
But I need continued work in this area as I do honest communication with others.
My struggle is not with malicious dishonesty but in being able to gently and truthfully confront difficult subjects with others.
And I commend this value to us as a congregation. I seek your honest and open – but gentle and gracious – comments about my performance.
Few people enjoy hearing unpleasant truth – from themselves or from others.
But critical truth, given in grace, is far better than silence or ignorance. Indeed, Nelson asserts that true friendship and true intimacy with others demands both a healthy self-love on one’s own part and a gracious ability to communicate.
If I fail you in offering a compelling or well constructed Sunday message, if I fail you in my preparations or in my role as Pastor, I truly seek and want your gentle truth telling.
So, in this second Sunday discussing values that define us, what do we make of this ethic of self-awareness, authenticity and open, but gracious communication to ourselves and to others?
For me, we are filled with people, like all humanity, who yearn to be better, who seek fulfillment and who desire connection, love and meaning.
This place also holds beauty in the honesty and diversity of its members.
There are not many congregations where I find open and expressive affection between partners – straight and gay alike…
where members are free and celebrated for acting and dressing in ways that are meaningful to them;
where age and gender are not curses but are welcomed and admired; and
where society’s standards of what are masculine and feminine are not followed but, instead, proudly defied.
We practice such values as
hugging and kissing,
cooperation instead of competition,
equality instead of hierarchy,
proud iconoclasm instead of conformity
and defiant independence from the prevailing religious beliefs and organizations of our culture.
In our quest to understand more of the mysteries of life and the universe, we know that such a search begins with us. Deep inside our inner recesses
of sharp pains,
of joyous highs,
of immobilizing fears and
lies our naked selves, all alone. And yet we yearn for connection with the reality of ourselves and with the world. We yearn for genuine intimacy with others – to love and be loved, to embrace and to be embraced. And swirling within us is a hunger to know the mystical forces of life, death, creation and eternity. In that deep place, if we are honest to ourselves and to each other,
we find the holiness we seek –
we find truth –
we find the real person who we are –
and in that person we see god.
When I was able to tell myself I am who I am – a gay man just as good and flawed as I have always been, I was echoing what this collective congregation – and each of us individually – says to the world every day:
we are who we are,
ever striving to be authentic to what we believe and feel,
and constantly seeking the Divine truth within ourselves.