I Gotta Be Me, You Gotta Be You. Now What!?

A sermon by Barbara Wells
Paint Branch UU Church
January 12, 2003

Perhaps you know someone like Carol. She is a talented artist, a teacher, and what you might call a "character." She can be very funny, she works hard (you could even call her a workaholic) and she can be very entertaining. She is clearly an individual, and prides herself on not dancing to the same beat as everyone else. But Carol is also one of the most self-centered people I have ever been around. Everything you do or say in her presence ends up being all about her. If you ever try to challenge her it always ends up somehow being your fault. Being with her makes me angry and sad. She's an individual, yes, but sometimes there is very little that feels authentic about her.

Contrast her story with Maisie's. Maisie was one of those people who have something that I can only call presence. When I was with her I felt in the presence of something bigger than I was, something greater even than Maisie. She touched people at some deep place and those of us who knew and loved her will never forget her. Maisie was an individual, yes. But she was clearly someone who moved out of a profound sense of authenticity.

Both these women are individuals but only one of them shows what I would call a true authentic nature. Why? I think it is because Maisie did the hard work of really looking at who she was and what her life meant. She learned over time that there was more in this world than just her needs, her desires, even her fears.

Carol, on the other hand, has consistently resisted looking at her fears or facing what is really going on in her life. She uses people and work (and alcohol) to push away what hurts. She pretends that everything is just fine and refuses to learn from her mistakes.

Both Maisie and Carol have gifts that could make their lives and the world around them more meaningful and good. Yet, only one of them, Maisie, has done so. Why? I believe it is because she understood that her life and her gifts weren't just about her; that somehow there was something bigger and more real in life that she was here on earth to uncover; that down deep inside her, and in every person, was a spark of the divine.

Maisie was my teacher and though I had always believed in what one theologian calls "something more," being with Maisie made it real for me. For you see I, too, believe that at the heart of every human is something bigger, something more than just our biology, something more meaningful than just our brain cells and our bodies. I believe that at the heart of every human is something holy. And that the call to authenticity is all about unveiling the divine spirit that lives in each of us.

This belief in the spark of God that lies in all of humanity has strong Unitarian roots. William Ellery Channing, a 19th century founder of the American Unitarian Association held similar beliefs, as did one of my historical heroines, the Unitarian thinker and early feminist Margaret Fuller. And so also believed her friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson. As Emerson put it, we are "part and particle of God" and thus God is part and particle of us.

Now I know that God talk makes some UUs uncomfortable. Let me assure you that just as Emerson and Fuller did not believe in God as a white man on a throne directing human traffic, neither do I. I view God as that force which calls us into being, and from being into loving relationship with all of creation. And what I see happening far too often in our world today is that people are not letting this loving spirit shine.

The ancient Persian poet Rumi saw the spirit of life as that which moves through us to help us be who we really are. "God picks up the reed-flute world and blows," wrote Rumi. "Each note is a need coming through one of us, a passion, a longing-pain. Remember the lips where the wind-breath originated and let your note be clear. Don't try to end it. Sing your note! Sing Loud!"

It's tempting to interpret this imperative as an excuse to do our own thing, to just be an individual. We all know people who sing their notes awfully loud, so loud that we can't hear ourselves think. I would venture that such singing is not music but cacophony. It is, to use a biblical example, something akin to a modern day Tower of Babel. It's almost as if we think that if we all just sing our notes loud enough we'll convince everyone that our song is best.

That is not what I think Rumi meant when he wrote this poem. Yes, he wants us to sing loud, to be fully ourselves, to offer our music to the world. But he says to the listener, "Remember the lips where the wind-breath originated." Rumi is reminding us that we are not God, or the spirit, or even the simple essence of humanity. We are unique and precious but we are also part of something bigger and we forget that at our own peril. If we remember, however, the music we make can be wonderful.

I believe that all of us, if we are to grow into our full humanness, have to learn to trust what is inside of us, our own divine gifts, if you will, even as we learn to grow and change through contact with others. And to do this in a spiritual way requires of us that we cultivate two important qualities: wisdom and love.

Let's start with wisdom and what it is not. Wisdom is not information; it's not even knowledge. There is plenty of information available to all of us, and sometimes if we learn enough of it, we start to have knowledge. Competent doctors, for example, must have learned a lot about the human body and know many, many things about medicine or surgery, etc. But wise doctors have found a way to incorporate that knowledge into something more than facts and figures. Wise doctors are not just practitioners of a particular kind of medicine. They are healers, who care about the whole person and who bring their whole person with them into their work.

My friend Maisie was wise. Yes, she knew a lot, but there was something about her that made us want to listen to what she said. Her words, when she spoke them, seemed to come from somewhere deep inside her. She told the truth as she knew it and yet was always open to learning more.

Can we cultivate wisdom in ourselves? I think we can. It requires of us a willingness, however, to be patient and to let the still small voice inside speak through us. Some people seem to be born wise. (I expect most of us have met young children who seem wise beyond their years.) But most of us have to cultivate it. Wisdom begins to come, I believe, when we recognize that we don't know it all but that we do know something.

But wedded to wisdom must be love. Some of you may be familiar with the famous words written by Paul of Tarsus in his letter to the Corinthians. "Love," the apostle wrote, "is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful, it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth." He ends this well known passage with these words, "Now faith, hope and love abide, these three, and the greatest of them is love."

This ancient reflection on love still has much truth in today's setting. Real love is not desire or greed because real love is not jealous or arrogant. Real love is enduring and sees the truth and beauty in all of life. Real love is not about possession or show but is kind and patient. The most authentic people I know are those who bring a loving attitude to all they do. When you are with them you can't help but feel included.

When you wed love to wisdom in the human spirit, you end up with people who are authentic and real, who are more than individuals and thus reflect something greater than themselves in all they do—because individuality is not authenticity. To discover who we are as authentic human beings requires more than just doing our own thing. The search for true authenticity (which is, I believe, at the heart of spirituality) must include openness to others in their search for the same thing.

This kind of authentic humanness is desperately needed in our world today. Yet, too often people are encouraged not to be authentic but to be only individualistic. Like my friend Carol, this shallow individuality usually leads to anger and sadness in the people around you. When someone like this says, "I Gotta Be Me!" then I suggest you get out of the way because there is no room for you in their world.

But when we are able, even just a little, to let the authentic spirit of who we are and can be shine through us by cultivating wisdom and love something remarkable happens. When someone like this says, "I Gotta Be Me!" they are far more likely to do so with a sense of humor and a real willingness to let you say the same thing joyously back. When two people who are authentically human meet and express the larger, divine spirit that is wondrously in them, the odds are good that they will enjoy each other immensely, even if they are as different as can be and share completely opposite world views.

The physician and author Rachel Naomi Remen writes, "The purpose [of life] isn't to hold onto everything you have: It's to grow in wisdom, and to learn how to love better." If this is true then the journey toward authenticity is the most important thing we can do. Each of us will have to find it in our own way. No one can do it for us, we have to do it on our own. As the poet Rumi reminds us, "Go up on the roof at night in this city of the soul. Let everyone climb on their roofs and sing their notes! Sing loud!!!" I would only add that we not sing so loud that we can't hear the voice of another.

It's so easy to get caught up in our stuff, to drown out the voice of the spirit with our own needs and desires, to turn from others because their ways are different and hard to accept or understand. Even in our liberal and accepting churches we do not always approach each other with wisdom and love. But we can. I know we can. It just takes time and patience and a healthy dose of humor.

I invite you, then, to be your notes even as you listen to the voice of your neighbor singing in harmony. If we all find a way to live out of our best selves and be fully and authentically human, we can transform our world.

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