By Johnny Sears
One of my favorite poems is “The Journey” by Mary Oliver.1 To me, it describes a moment of awakening. It is at the same time a poem of tremendous honesty and self-compassion as well as one of great challenge. The poem thrusts readers into a deeper engagement with the reality of the world, confronting them with the call to be true to oneself within that reality—no longer content to remain beholden to the voices of distraction and illusion.
Oliver’s “The Journey” reminds me of the story of Jesus’ baptism as told in the Gospel of Mark.2 In the typical style of Mark’s Gospel, we are offered seven short verses of poetic brevity that describe an awakening for Jesus in which he hears a voice from heaven and receives his God-given identity. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). But he is also subsequently driven into a forty-day wilderness sojourn where he must wrestle with this newfound sense of identity in order to fully integrate it and return with clarity of self and of his unique, God-given vocation so that he can announce (and embody) with authority that the kingdom of God has come near.
Commentator Marilyn McCord Adams says these verses “narrate a textbook rite of passage: the candidate is singled out, taken for a proverbial length of time into a liminal space where old identities dissolve and new ones are forged, before being thrust back into society to occupy new roles.”3
What was that? Liminal space? Dissolve? Forged? Thrust? Wilderness? These are some intense words. They sound rather violent to me. Oliver’s poem is no different. This does not sound like the sweet, touchy-feely stuff I heard about in Sunday school when I was a kid and was promised life would be all sunshine and rainbows if I just accepted Jesus into my heart. Is this what we signed up for? One minute, Jesus is seeing the skies torn apart and hearing the voice of God say, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” The next, he’s being driven into the wilderness to live with the wild beasts and trying to figure out what just happened and what it all means!
The message here: waking up to our identity in God is not for the faint of heart. Neither is discipleship. Neither is ministry. In truth, it’s usually pretty disorienting and quite disruptive. But it’s also essential because a clear sense of one’s identity in God is the foundation upon which all discipleship and ministry are built. That identity in God provides a basis for the kind of self-honesty and self-compassion that empower us to live out our calling with authenticity and endure the challenges and resistance that come with doing so. What I am describing is what many of the saints and mystics through the ages have referred to as living out of the “true self.”
The True Self
Perhaps the reason this concept of the true self has been so common among the teaching of the saints is because the human capacity for self-delusion is infinite. Just pick a script: I’m in control of my own destiny; my life will be better when . . . ; I’m unlovable, I’m powerless; those people are getting what they deserve; I’m where I am because I worked harder than anyone else; I’m not good enough; I can do it on my own; I don’t belong here; I’m damaged goods; and so on.
To make matters worse, the systems and structures of society often support those self-delusions. For example, in America, a largely transactional society thrives only with an economic system that depends on consumerism. Messages bombard us with the intent to disconnect us from our humanity and persuade us to define our self-worth by what we produce or consume. The more we internalize these messages, the more susceptible we become to the myths and delusions of life that make us mindless consumers and functioning automatons for the various forces that seek to claim authority over our lives. In this self-perpetuating cycle, we get caught in a sort of survival mode, performing a dance in which the main steps are overfunctioning and avoidance of reality—or worse, self-loathing and despair. Our hearts harden, and we become numb to the reality of God’s presence in the world and the abundance of life that is constantly being offered to us. Instead, we choose to build our lives on a set of illusions we’ve constructed for self-protection and will fight to the death, individually and collectively, to defend those illusions. This is not a pretty picture!
What does it mean to live out of the true self? I’ll admit that terminology gives me a little heartburn because, to modern ears, those words too readily suggest another dualism. As in, there’s a good self and a bad self and we need to hide/reject/eliminate the bad self so that only the good self shows up. As with most other dualisms, the problem is that it’s all part of us, and we cannot escape our own selves (good or bad). We have to live with it all. I think the saints and mystics meant something more comprehensive. Brené Brown, a research professor of social work at the University of Houston, has done some groundbreaking work that gives us a better understanding of what the saints and mystics mean by true self. She began by trying to understand the anatomy of shame and the struggle for a sense of worthiness. In the process, she noticed that some people engage the world from a place where, no matter the outcome, success or failure, they still feel worthy of love and belonging. That worthiness is never negotiable. She began to think of these people as “wholehearted” people. This term came to her in worship when she heard these words in the Episcopal liturgy; “we have not loved You with our whole hearts.” She realized what characterized these people is that they are consistently loving with their whole hearts—even if they get hurt in the process.
Brown describes her own awakening in an interview with Krista Tippett.4 She began making a list of the behaviors that these wholehearted people choose and those they push away from. As she read the two lists, she realized she herself was on the wrong list! The “Do Not Do” list was full of things like perfectionism, judgment, exhaustion as a status symbol, productivity as self-worth, worrying about what people think, performing, proving, quest for certainty. Who doesn’t find themselves on that list?
As Brown analyzed her data, she discovered that vulnerability is the underlying quality of these lives of wholeheartedness and that courage and vulnerability go hand in hand. “These were folks who show up in their lives without a lot of guarantees.” Brown ultimately concluded that “our capacity for whole-heartedness can never be greater than our willingness to be broken-hearted.”5
Waking up to our identity in God is not for the faint of heart
There’s the challenge. Waking up to our whole hearts involves a great deal of risk, vulnerability, and courage. Most of us want to avoid and reject the parts of ourselves that we don’t like or are ashamed of or don’t believe are socially acceptable. After all, life seems safer that way. So we pretend away and stifle part of our own being and live halfhearted lives. Trouble is, those parts of ourselves we seek to hide resist being silenced and come out in all sorts of unexpected, unhealthy, and sometimes harmful behaviors. In truth, it is precisely by accepting and embracing the parts of ourselves we don’t like (as well as those of others) that they lose their power over us. We stop living in illusion and set our feet firmly on the ground of our being: the solid ground of being God’s beloved. It is from this solid ground that we are able to live fully into who God has created us to be and to fulfill our vocation. Jesus was driven into the wilderness because it wasn’t enough to just be told of his belovedness. He had to do the hard work of integrating that knowledge into the very core of his being. Only then could he become the kind of Messiah he had come to be instead of the kind everyone else (including his own disciples) would tell him he was supposed to be.
Making Room for Change
Too many people and churches and for institutions are asleep to the reality of God’s presence in the world because they live in survival mode. They’ve forgotten their identity in Christ. They’ve forgotten the ultimate reality that the kingdom of God is already at hand and that they are God’s beloved child. To me, this situation is a matter of urgency.
The world has become dangerous and is deeply divided. The world needs people who are awake to that which is of God within them, to God’s love and the power of that love to transform and heal. The world needs churches and institutions that are awake to the same. Thankfully, I also believe, along with many others, that we are in a time of spiritual awakening, and the good news is that people who are awake to their whole hearts are in a position to help others awaken to theirs.
The difficulty, as Brené Brown has noted, is that it requires a lot of vulnerability and surrender to let go of the illusions that keep us from being human beings fully alive. Unfortunately, we’ve largely forgotten how to create safe space and permission for folks to be vulnerable. Perhaps this should be the role and focus of the church. Perhaps, instead of trying to market Jesus, the church could simply make room for people to actually encounter Jesus from their own places of vulnerability, embrace their belovedness, and wake up to their whole hearts. The good news is that, although unusual, there are still people and places within and outside the church that offer the safe space we need to learn vulnerability. Wherever you find such a safe place, I encourage you to risk communion with the God who loves you deeply, so that you may be empowered to love yourself and the world with your whole heart.
Tools and suggestions for waking up to your whole heart:
What illusions hold you back from accepting and living out of your belovedness?
Johnny Sears is the director of the Academy for Spiritual Formation at The Upper Room.
From “Waking Up to Our Whole Heart” by Johnny Sears. Published in Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life, November/December 2015 /January 2016), Vol. 31, No. 1. Copyright © 2015 by The Upper Room.
1 Mary Oliver, “The Journey,” in Dream Work (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986).
2 Mark 1:9-15.
3 Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2008), digital, np.
4 Brené Brown, “The Courage to Be Vulnerable,” audio interview by Krista Tippett, 5 December 2013. onbeing.org.
I join many of those who will pray for you as you seek to discern what you are called to be at this moment. May God grant you the courage to fulfill that calling. May we all open our eyes and see the misery, open our ears and hear the cries of God’s people, and, like God through the Lord Jesus Christ, be incarnate amongst them.”
View a growing list of resources for the spiritual work of overcoming racism.