The Hunger for Acceptance

Read the rest of the Via Negativa: The Hunger Games sermon series

Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, S.C.
Readings for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost:

The Lord is the upholder of my life. (Psalm 54)
Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. (Mark 9:30-37)
You the one in all, say who I am. (Rumi)

Our first song comes from singer Kelly Clarkson, who rose to fame after winning “American Idol” in 2002. Since then she’s won two Grammys and 12 Billboard Music Awards. Today’s song is called “Dark Side” from her fifth album Stronger, released earlier this year. It topped the Billboard Dance Chart and even went to No. 3 in Poland. Let’s try it:

There’s a place that I know
It’s not pretty there and few have ever gone
If I show it to you now
Will it make you run away
Or will you stay
Even if it hurts
Even if I try to push you out
Will you return?
And remind me who I really am
Please remind me who I really am

Everybody’s got a dark side
Do you love me?
Can you love mine?
Nobody’s a picture perfect
But we’re worth it
You know that we’re worth it
Will you love me?
Even with my dark side?

I am afraid this morning, Jubilants. Actually, I’m not just afraid in this moment, but every day. My biggest fear is this: If you truly knew me — if you knew me like I know me, with my dark thoughts, my anger, my cynicism, my violent streak, my propensity to curse rather than bless — if you knew all of these things about me, Jubilants, my fear is that you would not like me very much. The truth is, I know all these things about me, and it is a daily struggle to even like myself sometimes.

But deep inside, what I know is this — each of you shares this fear with me. Every single human being on earth has a dark side — and deep inside each of us we hide something that we believe, if others knew, they would reject us. All human beings are experts at hiding… and not just from each other, we hide from ourselves — and we try our darndest to hide from the Holy.

If you’ve been in religion as long as I have — and I know some of you have — you’ve had it pounded into your head that God loves you. But in my religious background, I was taught that God really only truly loves you when you’re good, when you’re on your best behavior, when you’re only having pure thoughts or acting in pure ways.

That’s why we’re so guilt-ridden — because more often than not, we are not good, we are not on our best behavior, and we are definitely having some impure thoughts and acting in impure ways. And so, we repent, and repent, and repent, but we never seem to feel better about ourselves, because somewhere, in the back of our minds, we believe we’re bad — that we’ve failed — and that unless we hide our badness, unless we repress it or cover it up like a cat covers her business in the litter box, we will not be loved. We will not be loved by others, by ourselves, and — heaven forbid — we will not be loved by God.

This yearning for acceptance is a deep hunger that we all share. We hunger to feel not just accepted, but recognized and even exalted. We want to stand out from the crowd and be noticed for how unique and special we are. When we feel that we’re not being appreciated, we can lash out at others. We may begin see those around us as the enemy — as evil doers out to undermine us or turn the world against us.

Like the Psalmist, we may rant against them and even ask God to vindicate us over our enemies — those people we see as keeping us rejected and on the margins of society, whether because of our economic status, our race, our gender, our sexual orientation or gender identity — or any other label we’ve used to divide humans into good or bad, or acceptable or unacceptable, or even as clean or unclean.

“Save me, O God, by your name, and vindicate me by your might,” we cry out to the Holy. “Hear my prayer, O God; give ear to the words of my mouth. For the insolent have risen against me, the ruthless seek my life; they do not set God before them. But surely, God is my helper; the Lord is the upholder of my life. He will repay my enemies for their evil. In your faithfulness, put an end to them.”

Anger is a natural reaction when we feel that we have been shunned or not accepted, not just by society at large, but by our peers, our friends, or even our family. That anger may feel justified, but it is rooted deep in fear — that fear that people have judged us without knowing us — but it’s a paradoxical fear. Often we may feel that not being accepted is justified, because if people really knew us, they’d reject us anyway.

So in our anger, in our fear, we reject the world first. “If they won’t accept me, then fine, I’ll reject them first.” Or we may believe that it’s the world that’s wrong and we’re the ones who are fine — anything to make the rejection of others feel better.

We may cry out for vengeance, and our deep hunger for acceptance can easily turn into a hunger for revenge. This is the time to remember the best line from this psalm: “God is my helper; the Lord is the upholder of my life.”

No matter what the circumstance, no matter how pitch-black we think our dark side is, or how painful rejection feels, the Holy knows us intimately, dark side and all… and continues to help us, and uphold us with her infinite and unconditional love.

Breathe deeply.

Like a diamond From black dust
It’s hard to know what can become
If you give up
So don’t give up on me,
Please remind me who I really am

Everybody’s got a dark side
Do you love me?
Can you love mine?
Nobody’s a picture perfect
But we’re worth it
You know that we’re worth it
Will you love me?
Even with my dark side?

That “dark side” we all experience is called our “shadow” self by the famous psychologist Carl Jung. That shadow that we all carry offers some manner of perverse comfort to us — something that religions around the world often take advantage of, keeping us locked in guilt and fear that we will be rejected — not just by society, family or friends — but ultimately rejected by God.

One of Jung’s students, Robert Johnson, remarked that:

People resist the noble aspects of their shadow more strenuously than they hide the dark sides… It is more disrupting to find that you have a profound nobility of character than to find out you are a bum.

In short, it’s easier for us to believe we are intrinsically bad than it is to believe we are, at our most essential being, good. It is easier to believe we are the product of a fallen and cursed world, instead of the glad recipients of an original blessing from our Creator.

The good news, Jubilants, is that this idea of a fallen and cursed world — and thus a fallen and cursed humanity — isn’t biblical. Matthew Fox reminds us that it was the early church father Augustine who gave us this doctrine of Original Sin back in the fifth century. The early Jewish communities never read this kind of odious theology into the creation story.

Instead, in the centuries before Augustine, these passages told human beings that God created the world and pronounced it “good” — and that goodness includes human beings who have been originally blessed by the Holy. Buddhist Jack Kornfield says this is a very important distinction, because he says:

We might think of original goodness as merely an uplifting phrase, but through its lens we discover a radically different way of seeing and being: one whose aim is to transform the world.

This is how the ancient Hebrews, and even the early Christians, saw themselves — as people who were originally blessed and could transform the world by being a blessing. Sadly, later Christian theologians changed the focus — through the story of original sin — to only transforming ourselves. We see the results of this clearly today as religion seems more concerned with saving individuals than with transforming the world.

The first step, Jubilants, to reclaiming our original blessing is this: Acceptance. That acceptance begins with a personal transformation, accepting ourselves as being made whole — originally blessed by God with all of our flaws — dark side and all. But we must take the next step and extend that acceptance, that grace and love, to everyone else around us — both friend and foe alike — knowing that it is the Holy that accepts, helps and upholds us all.

Don’t run away
Don’t run away
Just tell me that you will stay
Promise me you will stay
Don’t run away Don’t run away
Just promise me you will stay
Promise me you will stay
Will you love me?

ohh Everybody’s got a dark side
Do you love me? Can you love mine?
Nobody’s a picture perfect But we’re worth it
You know that we’re worth it Will you love me?
Even with my dark side?
Don’t run away, don’t run away
Don’t run away, promise you’ll stay

Jonathan Myrick Daniels was born in Keene, New Hampshire, in 1939. He went to Harvard in 1961 and was expecting to become an Episcopal priest in 1966. But in March of 1965, Daniels found himself captivated by the words of Martin Luther King Jr. and answered his call for white people to join a march from Selma, Alabama, to the capital of Montgomery.

After the march, he stayed the whole summer in Alabama to help the community. A few months later, in August, he was standing outside a grocery store in Haynesville with two younger African Americans when a white man named Tom Coleman came out of the store and threatened them with a shotgun. Coleman took aim at 17-year-old Ruby Sales, and just as the gun went off, Jonathan pushed her to the ground, taking the full shotgun blast. He died instantly. In 1991, the Episcopal Church added Daniels to their list of saints.

What made him saintly, according to Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, is this:

He saw the struggle of southern African Americans as his own struggle, took their suffering upon himself and committed himself to their liberation as if their freedom and his own were inextricably linked.

Daniels understood deeply that everyone has a dark side — not just Tom Coleman, but himself. But, he also understood that to transform the world, we must come to the radical acceptance, not just of ourselves, but for anyone else who is oppressed, and for anyone who participates in the oppression. Acceptance is for everyone — not just those we love, but even for those we hate. The dark side resides in all of us — and fully accepting it in ourselves means we must accept it in others, and then let that love and acceptance transform the world.

Breathe deeply.

Our second song is one you’ve heard a piece of if you’ve watched television recently. The song is called “Future History,” and it’s currently being used in a Subaru commercial. The song is performed by a Nashville-based band called By Lightning. Let’s try it:

[Verse] I can feel you in my bones
I can see you in my eyes
I can hear you in my voice
After all this time

[Chorus] You’ve made me who I am
And all I’ll ever be
When I see you I see me
I am the future of your history
When I see you I see me

In our Jesus story, we find our guy giving his disciples a very clear lesson in acceptance — one that they sorely need but of course miss. Jesus and his merry band have been traveling through Galilee and into Capernaum, where Jesus asks the guys what they were talking about on the road.

Well, what the disciples discovered on that road trip is that even acceptance has a dark side. Now that they felt accepted by Jesus, this man that they loved and would follow through fire, and piddly little backwater towns, they started to argue about who Jesus accepted the most. They argued about who was the greatest among them — who was the most accepted, and therefore the most powerful.

See, we crave acceptance from world, but as civil rights struggles of the past have shown us, once acceptance is granted, then superiority can gain a foothold. Those who have been previously oppressed gain acceptance, then they can become oppressors of others who try to follow behind. Immigrants granted citizenship may rail about the “illegals,” or African Americans may complain that the LGBT community cannot co-opt its movement since the oppression is not exactly the same.

This is the dark side of acceptance — once we attain it, we get to decide who does, or does not, get accepted next. Jesus didn’t have to hear the disciples recount their conversation. He already knew his guys were getting a little bit full of themselves, so he gave them an object lesson — in the form of a child.

He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

At its core, Jubilants, acceptance is not about what makes me better than you or you better than me. Instead, acceptance is about what makes you, me — and what makes me, you. Whoever wants to be first must serve, and whoever wants to welcome God into themselves and the world must see themselves in everyone, even in a little child. Instead of seeing the world as competition — as separate from ourselves where we win acceptance or face rejection — Jesus invites us to see the world as interconnected, by once again connecting with our innocence and wonder that we had as children.

As kids, we don’t know about separation until we are taught it. We see kids of different races, abilities and genders, and we don’t differentiate ourselves from them. They are all just other beings that we love to be with, play with and learn about. It’s only when the adults, who have learned the lesson of “us” versus “them,” tell us that we can’t play with children of different races, or different genders, or those with different abilities, that we begin to see the world as separated from us.

Jesus invites us back into our childlike ways — to view the world as innocent, divine, awe-filled and wonderful. This does not mean that we turn a blind eye to evil, or a deaf ear to suffering, but that we learn how to embrace it all, just as we learn to embrace our own evil and suffering as part of this amazing journey we’ve been given.

Once we can see that there is no separation between ourselves and others, we can fully grasp what Jesus was trying to tell us when he said we must love our neighbor as ourselves.

We must see our neighbors not as separate and in need of our love, but as a continuation of our own very being. My neighbor is in me and I am in my neighbor. When I see you, I see me.

Breathe deeply.

[Verse] You’ve always been my hero
You’ve always been my friend
Your love is a pure love
And it will never end

[Chorus] I’ve made you who you are
And who you’re yet to be
When I see you I see me
You’ve given me a future with your his – to – ry
When I see you I see me

“I am all orders of being,” wrote the Sufi poet Rumi, “The circling galaxy, the evolutionary intelligence, the lift, and the falling away. What is, and what isn’t.

“You the one in all, say who I am. Say I am you.”

When I see you, I see me. What does this experience really feel like? Have you ever had a moment when you have looked into the eyes of another person and seen yourself reflected back? If not, what do you think it would feel like?

I imagine Rumi captured it perfectly, realizing that we are all morning mist, all the breathing of evening, the wind at the top of the grove and the surf on the cliff. We are all made of cosmic dust — our cells and skin comprised of the very molecules and atoms that make up the universe around us. We have come into this form, this suit of skin, that makes us feel separate from creation and one another, which is why we must remind ourselves that we are all morning mist, all the breathing of evening, the wind at the top of the grove and the surf on the cliff.

We are what is, and what isn’t. When I see you, I see me. I am the future of not just my parents’ history, but the history of the trees and the air, the history of morning mists past, and winds that once blew at the top of groves.

We are not separate, but part of the whole, and the best news of all — we are accepted as part of the whole. It is we who have the power to reject our connection to it all — but even as we reject it, the universe takes us into its cosmic acceptance. We are part of the whole whether we acknowledge it or not. We are dust, and we shall return to dust — all part of the cosmic circle of life.

Cynthia Bourgault writes that:

It is not a ladder but a circle that brings us to God: the continuously renewed giving and receiving which in its totality is where God dwells.

God dwells in the circle, Jubilants, that circle of life that encompasses us all, without exception, without status, without worldly wealth or fame, or any division we seek to implement in this life.

We are all a mix of light and dark, all a mix of good and evil, all a mix of right and wrong. The Holy invites us to accept that not just in the world around us, but within ourselves, which may be the hardest task of all. But hear the good news, Jubilants, God is our helper, the upholder of our whole lives.

How would it change the way you lived if you understood that the Holy sees you not as an awful monster, but as a little innocent child — a noble human being created with God’s original blessing?

How would it change the way you lived if you understood that the world around you is not fallen and evil, but created by God who called it “good”? How would it changed the way you lived if you could see yourself reflected in the eyes of all the children of God around you, whether they were friends, family, or your direst enemy?

How would it change the way you lived if you understood that every child alive today is the future of the history we create today? Would you live your life just a little bit more generously, a little bit more lovingly, with a little bit more acceptance knowing that it will produce more generosity, love and acceptance in the future?

How would it change the way you lived, Jubilants, if — even just for a moment — you looked at every loved one, every stranger, every enemy and said, “When I see you, I see me”?

Or, as Rumi would put it: “Say I am you.”

[Verse] You live inside my breath
I can feel you in my heart
I know it in my soul
You’ve loved me from the start

[Chorus] You’ve made me who I am
And all I’ll ever be
When I see you I see me
I am the future of your histo – ry
When I see you I see me
When I see you I see me

Oh, Yeah!