By Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor from her book An Altar in the World in a chapter entitled, “The Practice of Wearing Skin”:
“…I think it is important to pray naked in front of a full-length mirror sometimes, especially when you are full of loathing for your body. Maybe you think you are too heavy. Maybe you never liked the way your hipbones stick out…Are you too hairy? It is always something. Then again, maybe you have been sick, or gone through surgery that has changed the way you look. Too many of us stay covered up or even bathe in the dark…This can only go on so long, especially for someone who believes that God loves flesh and blood, no matter what kind of shape it is in. Whether you are sick or well, lovely or irregular, there comes a time when it is vitally important for your spiritual health to drop your clothes, look in the mirror and say, ‘Here I am’. This is the body-like-no-other that my life has shaped. I live here. This is my soul’s address…When I do this, I generally decide that it is time to do a better job of wearing my skin with gratitude instead of loathing.”
“Here I Am”
The Path of Love. This is our worship theme this month. This is one of those themes that most of us as Unitarian Universalists come alive around. We can do love, right?
For Love really is the agreed-upon center, dare I say theology, that holds us. In this big and varied tent of belief and doubt; in a faith where atheists rub shoulders with theists; where religious language can be so fraught on LOVE we can agree.
Many UU’s, many of you, find comfort and meaning in substituting the word ‘God’ with ‘Love’. Our Universalist forebearers taught us about this when they began inscribing those words over their church doors, and in written prayers and creeds: God IS Love.
Some of you have heard that currently our Principles and Sources are being re-visioned and revised by a UUA commissioned initiative called “The Article II Commission.” And I plan to speak more about this in the coming months so that we can wrap our minds around what this is, but worth noting now is that this Commission, after holding dozens and dozens of nation-wide conversations with UU’s, were able to distill the center-point of our faith–what we believe–into this one word: Love. In fact, the most current proposal on the table literally puts the word Love at the center of a kind of flower image–with each petal representing how we put this Love into action. But there love is, at the center.
This is good stuff. I can get behind this. I can certainly get behind our faith working to make more clear what it is that we believe in–finding its way to some faith fluency that doesn’t leave us fumbling and stumbling over words when asked what Unitarian Universalism is.
So, let’s talk about Love now. Love as the center point that holds us. Because while it’s a palatable word for most of us, it is also the most challenging of tenets to live by. We turn away from love all the time. Beat it off our doorsteps. Chase it away. This morning I am going to hone in on one piece of the big-ness that is Love. For just like the word God, it holds multitudes. And this piece has to do with Self-Love.
Roll call: How many of you can’t wait to get home today so that you can try out Barbara Brown Taylor’s body blessing and prayer? Stand naked in front of a mirror and say: “Here I am. This is the body-like-no-other that my life has shaped. I live here. This is my soul’s address.” How many of you can’t wait to do this?
Self-love. Oh, that’s a tough one. Particularly when we re-frame SELF-LOVE as unconditional. Consider that for a moment: unconditional self-love. There are some dirty words for this. They are the wrong words, but they are conflated with self-love all the time. To name a few: Narcissism, Egotism, Selfish, Self-centered, Prideful (one of the seven cardinal sins!). Here’s one I hear in UU circles a lot: Naval-Gazing.
Psychology has placed high regard on the non-ego driven personalities; religion has warned us about the sins of selfishness and pride. And coupled with this, (oh it’s insidious!), coupled with this, the modern, commercialized world spends billions of dollars a year on marketing that again and again indoctrinates us to believe that unless we alter ourselves, improve in some way, strive for some idealized version of ourselves, we are…deficient.
These are big and powerful industries! Religion, capitalism…Not one of us is untouched by this messaging. And it has left many of us incapable of even conceiving of standing in front of a mirror and saying: Here I am. Here I am.
In 2001, cultural critic, feminist theorist and writer bell hooks wrote a book called “All About Love.” A book born out of her personal reckoning with a love that had been absent in her life, all the way back to her childhood. And the title says it all: All About Love. Just what is it? Even better, what isn’t it? What are all the varieties and variations of it? Especially powerful is her experience threaded throughout the entire book as a black woman living in this country–a place that subtly, and not-so-subtly, tells her that she is loved with countless conditions, and mostly, that she is unlovable.
But right smack dab in the middle of this book, is a chapter called ‘Let Love Be Love in Me.’ And everything changes after this chapter, or I should say comes into focus. She writes: “Of all the chapters for this book, this one was the most difficult to write. When I talked with friends and acquaintances about self-love I was surprised to see how many of us feel troubled by the notion, as though the very idea implies too much narcissism or selfishness. We all need to rid ourselves of misguided notions about self-love. We need to stop fearfully equating it with self-centeredness and selfishness…Self-love is the foundation of our loving practice. Without it our other efforts to love fail.” Self-love is the foundation of our loving practice. Without it our other efforts to love fail.
One need only consider the story On the Night/Day You Were Born, that I mentioned to our kids today: “On the night you were born…the moon smiled with such wonder that the stars peeked in to see you, and the night wind whispered ‘life will never be the same’ because there had never been anyone like you ever in the world.” “On the day you were born we whispered in your ear: ‘we are so glad you’ve come.”
TRUTH. This isn’t a lie we tell our kids.
Not one of us would whisper any other words to a newborn baby. But when exactly did we decide, or were convinced, that this kind of truth, is only meant for babies and children and youth? Can you read it to your adult self and know it as true? Now? Just as you are now? What keeps us from this? For myself, I have fallen victim to the false belief that as long as I behave a certain way, or look a certain way, well, only then, can I celebrate myself. And best to be done quietly. What conditional and brutal self-love. Do you know this kind of conditional self-love? It’s exhausting.
Mary Oliver, in one of my favorite poems, ‘Don’t Hesitate,’ writes about joy not being made to be a crumb. The same is true for Self-Love: it is not made to be a crumb. And yet, so many of us continue to think that crumbs are all that’s on the menu.
And there’s a whole spectrum to this–from the big overt acts of self-love and honoring, to the the small, sometimes hardly noticeable ones. And those are the easiest ones to begin with. Wake up to. The words we use, for example.
I have appreciated the dear ones in my life who have pointed out to me when my language about myself doesn’t sound very kind. About 15 years ago I started making a list of all the words I used to diminish myself. Some of them were harsh. Most were easy to miss, but still names and descriptors that I would never call anyone else. And I found that writing them down helped me to face them better. Look at them more squarely. And notice more acutely where and when and why I was using them. As bell hooks says, ‘love is a practice.’
Being around children and teenagers is such a helpful reminder in this. For who among us would EVER use the language many of us use to describe ourselves, our shortcomings, our bodies, who would ever talk to a child in some of the ways we do ourselves? It’s a great litmus test. If you wouldn’t say it to a child, extricate it. Banish it, along with those crumbs.
By the way, reflecting on this–getting to the why of this–putting this into your daily spiritual practice as you would any urgent matter, and learning to find your way towards care and kindness and love for your precious self, through word and action: this does not make you a narcissistic naval gazer. NO.
This is where I say to you that the world’s ills are a product of self-loathing, not self-love. Think about that for a moment. The world’s ills are a product of self-loathing, not self-love.
This is the remarkable gift that comes from the practice of learning to love ourselves just as we are, unconditionally…we learn to love others in the same way!!
And this is a dance, as is all spiritual practice. Loving others, service to my fellows, has often filled me with love. Feeling loved and seen, has often returned me to myself. Our meditation hymn nails this dance well: “May I be Filled with loving kindness, may I be well, may I be peaceful and at ease, may I be whole…may you…may we…may I…may you…may we…”
I talked a lot about that holy trinity last month: I, You, We, WE!!!
My guess is that many of us are out of balance in this. And I hope you will take this imbalance seriously. If you find yourself wanting to make a start, consider the words you use to describe yourself when you don’t feel like you are at your best. Or think about whether you would ever speak them to a small child or another human being for that matter. And release them if you wouldn’t. Find a more loving way to say it.
Some of you might want to think about the practice of wearing your skin. Or whether you can consider your body, no matter what shape it’s in, as your soul’s address. Maybe you aren’t ready to stand in front of the mirror naked, but you might be ready to try some of those words out: “Here I am. This is the body-like-no-other that my life has shaped. I live here. This is my soul’s address… it is time to do a better job of wearing my skin with gratitude instead of loathing…”
Can you hear me when I tell you that you are worthy of this kind of love and care? Do not make it small. Do not only speak it in hushed tones. Don’t let the ‘buts’ and ‘ifs’ and conditions raise their clanging bells and voices.
You are worthy of this kind of love and care. “The night wind whispered ‘life will never be the same’ because there had never been anyone like you ever in the world.” “We are so glad you’ve come.” “You are Loved.”
The stakes are high, the reward great. Healing the world great. Believe that.
And so I say to you AMEN and MAY IT BE SO.
When this theme started to come round the corner I found myself humming Love, Love, Love…bum-bum-bum. And because Charlyn and Guy are so spectacular, they took these hums and said–let’s make it our closing hymn! All you need is love.
Sing it for yourselves this morning. Sing it for each other this morning. Sing it for the world. I, You, We. In good balance.
ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE!
Reverend Sophia Lyons
Rev. Sophia is committed to radical welcome and spreading the good news that is our bold Unitarian Universalist faith. Some of her areas of interest include interfaith partnerships, addictions ministry, spiritual direction, and working towards collective liberation for all. Rev. Sophia aspires to live her life and fulfill her ministry guided by spiritual seeking, big love, and the seven principles of Unitarian Universalism.