Sermon: “Who me?” and other questions of faith

May 24, 2012

Isaiah 6:1-8

Psalm 29

Recently my family got a new puppy. Her name is Nala. She is about five months old now, super sweet and a ton of work. But one of the things I love about dogs in general and puppies in particular, is that they are always so over the top glad to see you. When I come home at the end of the day, I can barely get the key turned in the lock without Nala turning into a kind of canine Kangaroo. She sees me through the glass in the front door and begins leaping, twirling and bouncing with a joy that her little body simply cannot contain — it is as if seeing me again is the best thing that has ever happened to her. Every part of her body wiggles in the opposite direction. It is a greeting that really ought to be reserved for a rock star or at least for the return of a long hoped for prodigal daughter.

Recently, I saw a bumper sticker that made me think of this greeting that little Nala always give me. It first made me laugh and then gave me pause. It said. “I want to be the person my dog thinks I am.”

But before we go any further, Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

In book group this month we are reading a rather remarkable memoir by Anita Moorjani[1] in which she recounts her near death experience from cancer. I am looking forward to our conversation on Tuesday evening for it is an extraordinary account. Anita is Hindu and she tells of how through her near death experience she was awakened to a deep sense of connection with all things. She realizes that for most of her life she had been caught up in an internal struggle of feeling that she was not good enough. That she was not spiritual enough, not a good enough daughter, and would never be a good enough wife.

But her near death experience changed all of that. Through it she ceased seeing herself as “not enough” and began seeing herself as an integral part of all that is. She realized that the question “Am I good enough?” was irrelevant. She simply was and being in and of itself was enough. She realized that the point of her living was to live out of the goodness that she already was and that was a part of all things.

So I have been thinking lately, what is it that keeps some of us stuck “wanting to be the person our dogs think we are” while others like Anita for example live out of a place of magnificence and deep communion? What differentiates some of us who live life facing inward caught up in an inner monologue of critique and contempt while others seem to live life facing outward in a dynamic, textured engagement with the world?

The difference, I think it has everything to do with shame. Shame. We don’t talk about shame much do we? We are used to talking about that which keeps us from fullness of life in terms of guilt and sin especially within our Christian tradition. We start every worship service by lifting up in our prayer of invocation or confession all that which has kept us from God and from each other. We then receive the assurance that through God’s grace we are forgiven and restored, welcomed back into the embrace of God’s love that holds and connects all things. This is suppose to give us peace. And I hope it does.

But what happens if deep down inside us we think that the problem is not so much that we have made a mistake but that we are a mistake. What happens when deep down inside of us there is a voice telling us that we are fundamentally flawed in some irreparable way. That we are no good, inadequate, unworthy. That we believe ourselves to be a “person of unclean lips?” Can we fully embrace the forgiveness and grace that God offers if deep down we harbor a feeling that we really don’t deserve God’s grace and forgiveness. This is shame. Shame.

Where does this shame come from? The capacity to feel shame is hard wired into our nervous system much like fear and anger are. It is a biological response. When shame is triggered we blush, we avert our eyes, we may feel mentally confused. But it is in our interactions with each other that we find the source of shame. Maybe when we were small those who were supposed to love us were unavailable and we interpreted their distance to be evidence of our unworthiness of love. Maybe we were teased or bullied in elementary school for being too heavy, too effeminate, too tall. Maybe as adults we look at the life we imagined for ourselves and the life we actually have and feel shame at not measuring up. Of not being able to make it in the way that our siblings, friends, or neighbors have.

The outcome of accumulated shame, of this corrosive sense of not being enough, is that we spend much of our emotional and spiritual energy turned back into ourselves in efforts to hide or cover up our fundamental unworthiness. We get stuck in a loop of wanting to move out into the world, but feeling inadequate to do so and then needing to cover up our feelings of inadequacy. And then we feel even more inadequate for feeling we need to cover up our inadequacy … And so it goes.

So how do we leave the grip of shame behind? Apart from having a near death experience like Anita Moorjani? I believe releasing us from the grip of shame into the fullness of life has everything to do with what we are doing here. When I say in my words of welcome that you are welcomed here regardless of how you may view the status of your soul when you walk through these doors. That our life is truly enriched by your presence regardless of what you perceive to be your shortcomings or failures, I am reflecting the deep conviction of this community. Look into the eyes of the people around you and see how deeply you are loved and valued. Whatever shame you may carry, let it evaporate in the warmth of affection and care in which you are held here. When we look at each other, when we pass the peace and greet each other. When we chat at coffee hour and when we pray, and learn and do the good work of the church with each other we reflect to one another the essential beauty, goodness, and value that we are and that we see in each other.

I also hope, and it is my faith, that the welcome we express here and the embrace we live is an echo of the welcome and embrace that first and fundamentally comes from God. When Isaiah that ordinary man but soon to be poet and prophet was deep in prayer so many centuries ago, he felt the presence of something Holy come to him and surround him, he felt that communion of love. But he balked and pushed it away. He cried out, don’t you know me. Don’t you know my shame? Don’t you know that I am not enough? Can never be enough? Imagine his sense panic as his deep inadequacy is exposed before the Holy. As he calls out “I am a man of unclean lips.”

And so the angel of the Lord, in mercy, takes a coal and touches Isaiah’s lips in what would have been understood as a ritual of cleansing. I’d love to hear what you think on this, but I believe that while it is a great act of love, this touching of Isaiah’s lips with a coal is also a great bit of theatrics for Isaiah’s sake. God knows that Isaiah is worthy to do the work that God needs. A coal on the lips cannot change that. But the point is that Isaiah does not yet know that. The stumbling block is not who Isaiah fundamentally is but who Isaiah understands himself to be. And so angels touch his unclean lips with a coal and in that gesture, Isaiah feels freed to be who he is and who God knows and needs him to be.

And if I had an anthropomorphic view of God, I would imagine God smiling that wise kind of Dumbledore smile and saying with knowing “well then whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Knowing full well, that Isaiah in his freedom, in his communion with the magnificence of all that is and all he now knows himself to be, cannot now help but to shout out with joy “Here I am, send me!”

And so, let each and every one of us see in the faces of this beloved community just how loved and valued we are. Let that love and acceptance free us from whatever grips of shame that may bind us. Let us discover the joy of living out of our own magnificence and the peace of sharing in the communion of the magnificence of all things. And let us all come home to the truth that perhaps we already are the person our dog knows us to be. Amen

[1] Anita Moorjani. Dying to Be Me. (Hay House Inc. 2012).