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Be Yourself

March 23, 2015

“Be Yourself” Jeremiah 31:23-34 © 3.22.15 Lent 5B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

“Just be yourself.” It’s the advice from a parent or older sibling the nervous teen hears on the night of the first-ever date. The encouraging words the job candidate receives from spouse or friends as he or she anticipates the interview with not a little fear. The struggle each of us engages in against the forces that press upon us and pull us this way and that in our culture.

“Just be yourself.” Despite such phrasing that makes authentic living sound simple, it’s so not easy to “be ourselves,” is it? In the first place, it’s not always clear who we are. We wear so many hats, engage in so many tasks, fill so many roles. Which one is really you? Truly me? If we’re able to adapt to new situations, adopt the way of speaking of the crowd we run with, put on a face for public consumption, are we being false to our real selves or is our flexibility part of who we are? Is our true self only that which we are in our most private moments, in the inner sanctum of our homes or our minds, alone, or do we also find our identity in community with others, in relationships, in the public interactions in which we all engage in some way? If I lose my job or retire and work is what has defined me, am I no longer myself? If you have prided yourself on helping others, and such a mission gave you purpose, but now your health keeps you homebound and indeed needing assistance yourself, are you still you?

Years ago, a college student expressed her fear to me that she was losing herself. I think I said something important to her or tried to, but later I realized there was something else I could have shared with her that may have helped interpret what she felt was happening. At 21, she was on the threshold of a fully adult identity; stepping across the border into that new land felt like abandoning who she was because in a sense, what she had been was dying in order for the new to be born. She was in process, unfinished.

As are we all, whatever our age. And therein lies another difficulty when we are advised simply to “be ourselves.” There are subtle changes in who we are since yesterday, even if neither we nor others notice them now.

What happens is rather like the classic cartoonist’s art. I have no idea if this applies with computer animation. But back in the day, in each frame, there was some little difference in the drawing, barely perceptible. A slight turn of the head. A little bend in the hand or paw. But taken in sequence as the show progressed, the viewer believed that Road Runner was zooming through the desert or Bugs Bunny was chewing on a carrot. You and I are affected by the people we meet each day, the experiences we have, the places we go, the things we read. Sometimes the change is subtle. At other times, it occurs in overt and big ways. But we are transformed. There’s movement when all is said and done.

The journey toward the finished self is not always an easy one. Especially if we take the gospel word seriously as in some way describing who we are and are to become. Then we end up quite often longing for the day when we shall be complete, in other words, for the consummation promised by God, the new thing God will do.

Typically, the seductive voices of our culture invite us, urge us, to focus only on the present, to affirm that today is the only thing available to us. So we’re driven to acts of self-securing, whether as individuals, a community, a nation. There is nothing ahead but what is here for us today. So in our sickness or brokenness, we succumb to despair, thinking we will never be whole. In our affluence, we seek to have even more, no matter what the cost to ourselves and others. In our fear that we will lose ourselves if we open up to others, we draw back into isolation and build walls of suspicion and hurt. In our exile, we decide that we’re here because we have been scripted by the past, victims all, and can’t imagine newness.

Is it any wonder then that when we come here for an hour or so a week and hear promises of an alternative reality, of God making all things new, that the words sound like so much fantasy, so many pipe dreams? They’re strange and alien, and we no doubt go away talking about “the real world” and “the way things are.” We think of the will of God as something imposed upon us if we accept it at all; we resist the gospel because its summons feels for all the world like a command to give up who we are. We repeat some version of that classic line: “I was afraid to accept Christ because I thought I would have to become a missionary to Africa” or maybe “I was convinced that following in God’s way would mean the end of any fun I might have.” The disciplines, the language, the very way of life of the faithful follower of Christ seem like laws imposed by outsiders or the regulation of big government. In a word: “unnatural.” They’re not expressions of our interior life, our best sense of who we are, what our history has been, what our personality is like.

The situation envisioned by Jeremiah was very much different. Yahweh had come to his people in love, made covenant, become a husband to them. But the bride Israel never quite felt the same as God did. Instead, the relationship was resisted, as if she had been kidnapped and forced into marriage or given by her father to someone she did not love. All the trappings of marriage were there, and sometimes there was even a spark of devotion. But in the end, the incompatibility, the resentment against externally imposed strictures, was too much. The commandments intended to give life instead aroused hostility. The covenant was broken because obedience seemed a violation of something essential to the identity of the life of the individual Israelite and the whole community. The restlessness people felt was not because of longing to be all that God wanted them to be, but the fidgeting of folk who wanted to be somewhere else, do something, anything, else.

The new covenant offered by God, Jeremiah said, would change all that. The commandments would be the same; God still called for a life of faith, hope, and love, of justice, righteousness, and peace. But now, written upon the heart, they would be part and parcel of the very being, the essential self, of every Israelite and the whole people of God. Obedience would be as normal, as accepted, as enjoyed, as longed for as breathing, drinking, and eating. God’s will and way would not be “out there” but “in here.” Every act, every breath would be prayer; every prayer, the voice of the true self.

Anyone who has ever tried to learn a foreign language, especially as an adult, has struggled with attaining true fluency. I’ve taken French and Spanish, but I can speak neither. I have a hard time these days with biblical Hebrew and Greek, so many years out of seminary. When we learn a language, not only do we have to know its vocabulary, sentence structure, grammar, and so on. To speak like a native, we have to learn to think in the language. We don’t formulate a sentence first in our native tongue, then translate it into the one we want to speak. A language is a more than words; it expresses a worldview, a set of categories and symbols to interpret reality. We therefore have to immerse ourselves in the culture, let it become second nature to us.

So, for example, we can’t say “I am hungry” in French; it’s literally “I have hunger.” To learn Hebrew, we must get used to verbs with mood and voice, but no tense; in addition, we cannot think of the back of the book as the end; in Hebrew, it’s the beginning! There was even an old Clint Eastwood movie in which his character had to steal a secret Russian jet, but in order to operate the weapons systems, he had to think in Russian, since the helmet’s sensors picked up his thoughts. They wouldn’t obey English commands!

The faithful living out of the covenant with the God known in Christ is like speaking a language fluently and comfortably. The categories, the concepts, the very culture of faith can continue to feel foreign to us, so we’re constantly translating. Or we can think theologically all the time, see all of life through the lens of faith, let the reality of Christ permeate our very being. Then it won’t matter whether we’re in a worship service or in the classroom or the den watching TV or outside playing a game. We can’t conceive of ourselves, of our existence, of the world, apart from Christ and the covenant. All of life becomes worship, and worship, the real center of life, providing new lessons in the language of the kingdom, more immersion in its culture. The gospel gets inside us and takes over every system, every cell, every fiber—heart, mind, soul, strength, irrevocably, forever.

You may have heard the story of the 20th century Salvadoran bishop Oscar Romero. No doubt he believed that he was living out his best identity in his world of books and mid-level church politics, hobnobbing with the rich class in his country. For him, the priests out in the poor parishes who had begun teaching and living the theology of liberation were wrong, false to the essence of the gospel. Certainly Romero could not and would share in their solidarity with the poor except in rhetoric, especially once he was elected archbishop. His world was that of receptions and lecture halls, quiet lunches with the politicos, private baptisms of rich children whose parents didn’t want them mixing with the peasants. Plus, the official function of the church hierarchy was to support the government.

But then things began to happen, horrible things. One of his best friends in the priesthood was killed by a death squad because he worked to get peasants to the polls. The army opened fire on a group of defenseless worshippers gathered for the Eucharist in a public square. Romero went to see how the people lived in hovels next to landfills and garbage dumps, scavenging their living from what the upper classes cast off. He himself was arrested, and another priest tortured and killed. A transformation began to take place; the words of the prophets and of Jesus that the parish priests kept quoting to him about caring for the plight of the poor no longer seemed just so many words. They had gotten inside of him; his heart was changed. No longer could he stand apart from those in need; if he were not to lose his own soul, if he were to discover who he was and was to be, then Romero had to give himself to the cause of the poor, even at the risk of his own life. Indeed, his journey did result in his death at the hands of a government assassin. The archbishop was murdered while he celebrated the Eucharist.

It is no accident that Romero discovered himself in community with others, for if we are to find ourselves and if we are to know God, it will be in concert with others. It will be in a community where the quest for and the fact of the knowledge of God is the great leveling factor, bringing together greater and lesser, as Jeremiah said, the “farmers and those who wander,” “Judah and all its towns.” As one scholar has put it: “On the crucial matter of connection with God, the least and the greatest stand on equal footing. No one has superior, elitist access, and no one lacks what is required. All share fully in the new relation. All know the story, all accept the sovereignty, all embrace the commands” (Walter Brueggemann, To Build, To Plant: 72). This is a community in which the scripts of the past have been torn up and thrown away so a new story may be written. This is a group of pilgrims who are free to move into the future because they have been forgiven by the very One who beckons them to the future. This is a community that knows its sin as one reality about itself, but also knows there is a greater truth: that God can break the cycle of sin and guilt, and does, out of his own resolve to do so, out of his own mercy and grace.

Your journey and mine toward being ourselves, knowing ourselves more fully, is a simultaneous pilgrimage toward a deeper knowledge of this forgiving, renewing God revealed and present in Jesus Christ. If John Calvin was right, without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God, and without knowledge of God, there is no knowledge of self. “Nearly all the wisdom we possess,” he wrote, “that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But, while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern. In the first place, no one can look upon himself without immediately turning his thoughts to the contemplation of God, in whom he ‘lives and moves’….For, quite clearly, the mighty gifts with which we are endowed are hardly from ourselves; indeed, our very being is nothing but subsistence in the one true God. Then, by these benefits shed like dew from heaven upon us, we are led as by rivulets to the spring itself” (Institutes 1.1.1).

We are always on the way to a more profound trust as we flow to the life-giving spring, uniting all that we have and are with the One who has created us, redeemed us, and sustains us. The early church father Augustine famously said: “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” We are never more ourselves than when we are in relationship with this God who longs to know us and love us. And even should we lose all that we considered essential to our identity, if we cling to him, we will never lose our true selves. We will not cease to be children of the light, children of the day, servants of Christ, honored by the Father, those who have the covenant written on their very hearts.

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