As You Love Yourself

This afternoon we hold our annual meeting. One of the items on the agenda is the adoption of a new vision statement for the congregation. The statement is this:

Unitarian Universalist Society: East will be home to a spiritually alive, richly diverse and growing congregation. We will send forth energy, spirit and strength into our beloved communities. We will love, be present to suffering, comfort, heal, bear witness to oppression, and boldly work toward social and environmental justice.

The word ‘love’ jumps out at me. There’s a story about why love appears in the statement. I want to share it with you. Though I preface my sharing with a concern, which is that, we Unitarian Universalists—and many people of liberal faith—along with the wider culture more generally—tend to gloss over love, are often imprecise in our naming of it. We’ve drained love of it of meaning, have allowed it to become a cliché. This is so true that it is even cliché for a minister to tell you that love has become cliché!” (Just want you to know that I know that.) We each understand love in our own way, yet we rarely, if ever, pause in the course of our congregational life to examine what we actually mean by love, what the various dimensions of love are, and perhaps most importantly, how we demonstrate love with our actions.

You may remember last May, approximately seven hundred Unitarian Universalist congregations participated in White Supremacy Teach-Ins, mostly on Sunday mornings. You may remember the Teach-Ins came in response to allegations of White Supremacy culture operating at the Unitarian Universalist Association in Boston. A number of high-ranking UUA staff members resigned over concerns about racism impacting hiring decisions. It was a very painful time. That pain continues as Unitarian Universalism continues to wrestle with race and racism.

I preached a sermon last May about White Supremacy culture. Among other things, I said that while White UUs aren’t White supremacists, our culture, especially when we fail to examine it closely, can produce racist outcomes. This is true of any culturally White institution. Often we don’t recognize it unless someone courageously makes us aware of it.[1]

At that time our Policy Board and Program Council were beginning to plan their fall leadership retreat, during which our leaders would craft a new vision statement. Alan Ayers was the board president at the time. He approached me after that sermon and asked a question that went something like this: “If a group of mostly White UUS:E leaders designs a vision statement for a largely White congregation, could our efforts to achieve that vision inadvertently perpetuate racism?”

Yes. The answer was and is “yes.” I loved that Alan had encountered my words, had not felt defensive, but rather, had been moved to re-think, or at least question, a congregational process. Could we somehow perpetuate racism if we don’t think this through more closely?

We started to think it through more closely. We ultimately decided to invite five prominent People of Color leaders from the Greater Hartford region—all people with whom we have some degree of relationship—to speak to our leadership prior to our visioning work. We wanted their perspectives as People of Color leaders to inform and deepen our visioning process. We asked them, “What is your vision for Manchester and Greater Hartford?” And, “How can our congregation contribute to the fulfillment of that vision?” Did this guarantee that our process would be completely free from that unconscious, unintentional racism we’re naming when we talk about White Supremacy culture? No. But this was an anti-racist way to approach our visioning process.

Pamela Moore Selders leading a song at the CT Poor People’s Campaign

One of the panelists was Pamela Moore Selders. Many of you know her as a co-founder of Moral Monday Connecticut with her husband, Bishop John Selders. They are conveners of the Black Lives Matter movement in Connecticut. They are also organizers for the Poor People’s Campaign in Connecticut.  When I was arrested on Monday at the first Poor People’s Campaign action, it was Pamela’s phone number I had scrawled on my arm for my one phone call.) In response to our questions that evening back in September, Pamela said, essentially, “I need you [mostly White UU congregational leaders] to know that I love being Black. I love the color of my skin, the texture of my hair, my culture, my food, my art. I love being Black.”

And then she said something I will never forget. “I need you  to love yourselves like I love myself.”

When I first heard her say this, there was a small part of me that wondered, “How on earth can we put ‘love ourselves’ in a vision statement without sounding like completely self-absorbed, new-age navel-gazers, without sounding like an insular, in-crowd social club?” And another small part of me said, “Of course we love ourselves. What’s she talking about?”

But the rest of me said “Yes. She’s right. This isn’t about the words on paper. This isn’t ultimately about the final vision statement. This is about the abiding, living, active love that must reside at the foundation of our life together. It cannot be glossed over. It needs constant nurture and attention; and especially in a congregation that has such a long and enduring Humanist identity, it begins with and is rooted in love of self. What an incredible invitation Pamela was making to us.

In the list of sources for our UU living tradition we identify “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.” In the Bible I find this most clearly stated in Jesus’ response to the question, ‘which commandment is the first of all?’ He condenses centuries of Jewish teaching and prophetic witness into a few, short, enduring phrases: “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”[2] Regarding that second commandment, in my experience, we  tend to focus on the neighbor part. We actually ask ourselves frequently, in a variety of ways,  “Who is our neighbor?” “How can we work in solidarity with our neighbor?” “How can we more fully welcome the stranger, the alien, the other?” This afternoon we decide as a congregation whether or not to offer sanctuary to immigrants facing deportation. That is ultimately a question of who our neighbors are. Essential questions! But how often do we pause to reflect on the “as yourself” part?

That’s an essential question too. The love we offer our neighbor mirrors our love for ourselves. Yet, if we don’t reflect deeply on the quality of love we feel for ourselves—if we just assume that everybody feels love for themselves, so that rather than exploring it we gloss over it, take it for granted, turn it into a cliché—how do we really know the nature of the love we ought to be extending to our neighbor?

When I read in our proposed vision statement the phrase, “we will love,” I recall Pamela’s invitation to love ourselves. In addition to extending love to our neighbor, I read in this phrase an invitation for us to unapologetically take a deep inward look, for each of us to unabashedly explore, experience and name the love we each feel for ourselves; and then for us as a congregation to unabashedly and proudly explore, experience and name the love we feel for ourselves as a congregation. We do this so that the love we offer to each other and into the world is authentic, powerful, and transformative.

This inward look is hard. Genuine love of self is hard. Mary Bopp told me a story this week about a minister she worked with in a previous congregation, who said “of course everybody loves themselves.” Mary said “that’s not true. It’s not as easy as you think.” He said, “sure it is.” She said, “ask your wife if it’s easy.” Apparently he asked his wife, who told him about how women are often socialized to care for others above themselves, and how the capacity for self-love is then easily dampened, suppressed or lost as a result.

There was a lot of Facebook chatter this week about my Poor People’s Campaign arrest on Monday. My cousin made the point that not everyone can risk being arrested, and that I was fortunate to be in a position to. I wrote back to her: “Yes…. I am in a fortunate position. Since I have support in my professional life from the people I serve as minister, my colleagues and my denominational structure, and since I am a straight, white, very privileged man, I feel a certain obligation to take this risk on behalf of those who can’t.” I jumped right to love of neighbor, responsibility to neighbor, accountability to neighbor. That’s important. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I had forgotten my own “as yourself” part. The truth is, I do this for myself too. Economic inequality, racism, environmental destruction, and the distorted moral narrative in our country all impact the communities that hold me, and thus they impact me. Interdependent web, yes? I also do this because I love myself and my family.”

My point is that I didn’t intuitively identify self-love as a reason for acting. So many people struggle with cultivating self-love. So many people for so many reasons feel, at some level, unworthy, not good enough, guilty, ashamed, weak. Unitarian Universalism isn’t always helpful here. We have a perfectionist streak running through our history. That may have been what Pamela Moore Selders was sensing when she said “I want you to love yourselves like I love myself.” We don’t always recognize our perfectionism, but it’s there. It has roots in our Puritan, New England spiritual heritage. It’s more visible among our Unitarian forebears, but the Universalists had their perfectionist leanings too. It’s part of American culture, capitalist and industrial culture. We witness it in the unrelenting drive for efficiency, for increased production, profit, growth, or in the words of the 19th-century Unitarian theologian, James Freeman Clarke, in the “progress of mankind onward and upward forever.”  So often we unconsciously measure ourselves against some perfect ideal, and find ourselves lacking. Self-love is hard when perfection is the default.

I wrestle with perfectionism. I feel like I fail often—as a parent, a husband, brother, son. I stumble often as a minister. Did anyone notice? Are they disappointed? I hope not. I second-guess myself. Was that the right thing to say? Is this the right sermon to preach? I know what needs to be done, but I’m not doing it because I’m doing something else that’s taking too much time. Do I have my priorities right? Are people thinking I don’t have my priorities right? Will the people respond well to what I say? Why am I so nervous? I wake up at 2:00 AM, my mind racing about the annual appeal, the worship service, why too few people are volunteering for leadership positions, the person in the hospital I forgot to call.

But Pamela Moore Selders didn’t say, “I need you to do it perfectly.” She said “I need you to love yourselves.”

When I wake at 2:00 AM, is there any love in there? Do I love my hair? My skin? Do I love my culture, my food, my art? Maybe the things on Pamela’s list aren’t the things on my list. But I do have a list. I love my sense of rhythm, that I can sit down at a drum set and drum. I love my Polish and Pennsylvania Dutch heritage; I love my creativity, my connection to nature, my ability to speak in public, my courage, my non-defensiveness, my ability to apologize, my experience of a sacred dimension in my living. I love how I love that sacred dimension. I love my wife, my children, my family, my friends. I love that they love me. I love that I’m a Unitarian Universalist. I love serving as your minister. If I strive to do all of it with perfection, measuring the results against some ideal standard, then I grow anxious and will likely fail. But if I can just revel in the love I feel, be present with it, surrender to it, love myself—ahh!—now I’ve got a solid foundation from which I can love my neighbor. Now I’ve got some sense of how I am called to love the world. 

Members and friends of this congregation: What’s on your list? How deeply do each of you love yourselves? Can you put words to it? Can you describe it? I know it is very difficult for some of you. Sometimes the self-doubt, the feelings of unworthiness are powerful. Do you know what gets in the way of deep self love? How are you actively addressing it? And even if it isn’t difficult, we still don’t typically speak of the ways we love ourselves. There’s something counter-intuitive about it, it feels selfish, self-absorbed. But I want us to feel invited to speak of it, because it is the foundation upon which we love our neighbor.

Furthermore, what is on your collective, congregational list? What do you love about this congregation? Can you say it with pride? Can you celebrate it? What do you love about your minister? Can you tell him? Can he tell you what he loves about you? Can you make abundant room for that conversation? It is indeed prelude to loving our neighbor.

This is my challenge to you: Make your lists. Share them with each other. A bold and heart-filled love of ourselves matters. It is certainly not the end of our journey, but an essential beginning. It is not selfish or self-absorbed, but an essential part of the foundation upon which we build our future together.  And from that foundation, we can go out into the world, knowing so much more clearly how to bless it, how to witness its pain, challenge its injustices, and work for healing and justice. I need you to love yourselves like I love myself.

May you make compelling lists—not of the things you must do, but of the depth of your love: for yourselves, for each other, for the world. May love of self become the source of your deep compassion for yourself, for your neighbor, for the world.

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Pawelek, Rev. Joshua Mason, “White Supremacy Teach-In,” a sermon delivered to the congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT, May 7, 2017. See: http://uuse.org/white-supremacy-teach-in/#.WvxAw4gvxPZ.

[2] Mark 12: 28b-31.