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Intention: Seeking Authenticity

What does it mean to be authentic? That was a rabbit’s hole if I ever went down one! Who knew? The topic seemed like a good one when I chose it a month or more ago. Intentionally Living Authentically is the original title I gave this sermon, but it morphed into Intentionally Seeking Authenticity because the deeper I went into the topic, the more it seemed that finding our authenticity and living it are among the greatest challenges in life, and one that isn’t as easy or simple as it may sound.

As E.E. Cummings once said, “to be nobody-but-yourself – in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else – means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight.”

Being authentic doesn't mean you get to say or do whatever you want. Being authentic means to be true to who you are, your values, your talents, your feelings, your intuition, your passions.

We've all be inauthentic, probably many times in our lives. We try to be what we think (or know) someone else wants us to be. We put on masks of perfectionism and pleasing. In our fear of being disliked or rejected or humiliated, we do things and say things that don't reflect who we really are. How sad that we hide the beautiful, unique human beings we are when the world needs who we are.

As Hermann Hesse said, “We were made to be ourselves. We were made to enrich the world.” Then he takes it one step further, and I think this is where authenticity and spirituality meet; to live our authentic selves fearlessly and boldly means we must walk the “hard, dangerous path to mature and to find God in [ourselves].”

As Don Miguel Ruiz wrote in The Circle of Fire, “God is here. God is living inside you as life, as love, but you have to see that truth, or there is nothing. You are here to be happy, to live your life, and to express what you are. You were created to perceive the beauty of creation and to live your life in love. But if you cannot find the love inside you, the whole world can love you, and it will not make a difference in you.” 

I truly believe, and have truly believed for the past 26 years of ministry, that there is a Sacred Presence, God, Love Energy, Higher Power (call it what you will) that calls us beloved. Even with all of our faults, failures and idiosyncrasies, we are loved no matter what. That knowledge can give us the courage to live true to ourselves. However, if we don't dig deep enough to touch, at least occasionally, our True Selves (capital S), we will be fooled into believing that we are the things we do, and the relationships we have, and the things we acquire.

There is an old Carolina story about a country boy who had a great talent of carving beautiful dogs out of wood. Every day he sat on his porch whittling, letting the shavings fall around him. One day a visitor, greatly impressed, asked him the secret of his art. He replied, “I just take a block of wood and whittle off the parts that don’t look like a dog.”

In John John 15:1-5, Jesus uses the metaphor of a grape vine. He says,

I am the true vine, and my Abba is the vine grower who cuts off every branch in me that doesn’t bear fruit, but prunes the fruitful ones to increase their yield. You’ve been pruned already, thanks to the word that I have spoken to you. Live on in me, as I do in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit of itself apart from the vine, neither can you bear bruit apart from me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who live in me and I in them will bear abundant fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.

It’s another way of saying God whittles off what isn’t Jesus, so that whittled down to his True Self he can bear the amazing fruit of authenticity – a life of compassion, justice, peace and love. And then Jesus connects himself with his followers, as the vine to the branches, who have also been whittled. Two chapters later Jesus prays that the disciples “may be one, as we are one – I in them, you in me -  that they may be made perfect in unity. (John 17:21-23) It’s a call to come back to themselves, as they come back to God.

Let me tell you the story of Cecil Williams, the United Methodist pastor who made Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco a unique, vibrant, inclusive, diverse, rich, welcoming church that has become truly iconic. He tells this story in his book, No Hiding Place.

Cecil grew up in San Angelo, Texas, a segregated town prior to the civil rights movement. Outside his closely knit black community, he was unacceptable, a nigger, second-class. And, as white folks told him, he always would be. While the white community told him he was nobody, in the black community he was somebody. He was a shining star in his black church even at a young age. His nickname was Rev.

Cecil often walked the line between worlds. With a good singing voice (and a white voice teacher), he and his brothers became a bit famous in the area singing to the Kiwanis and other service clubs. White folks loved to hear them sing, but immediately afterwards they were shown to a chair in the back or quickly ushered out of the room.

When Cecil would rail against the injustices, the pain, and the insults, his father told him to “just let it go.” But his Papa Jack, his maternal grandfather, who was once a slave, never just let it go. Papa Jack was the one to run off the white bill collectors when they came around harassing and throwing racial slurs at Cecil’s mother. Cecil was in awe of his Papa, and “alive with something beyond pride” when his Papa stood up against injustice.

Once a group of white college students from the University of Texas sought out Papa Jack to ask him about his experiences of slavery so they could write a report. They all sat on the front porch, and Papa Jack had all his grandkids sitting around him, too. When the students had all their questions answered, Papa Jack raised his right arm and in a broad sweep pointed to his grandchildren and said, “Papa’s an ex-slave. Now you all be ex-slaves, too.”

Two months later Papa Jack died. Cecil was ten. Even at that tender age he felt the weight of the world on his shoulders with Papa’s death, the rejection, the insults, the hopes he had for a better world. It all caved in on him and he had a nervous breakdown. Darkness took over his world. In his waking and his sleeping, a train kept coming to take him farther into the darkness. Voices rippled and figures shimmered in the night as “aliens” came for him, bringing the promise of death. The voices wanted him to give in, give up, accept the life of a nigger in the South. Stop fighting. For several months his mind was engulfed in blackness.

One night two “aliens” (as he called them) came once more to visit him. A white boy dressed in his Sunday best, and an old white man in a black suit who held a candle in one hand and a revolver in the other. In his mind, Cecil stood on the edge of a deep hole, peering into infinite darkness. The figures were there to convince him to leap into it. It was time for him to decide. Was it worth doing something? Was he worth it? He had to decide. It could be the last time.

“No,” he said. “No!” he screamed at the aliens. “I will not go with you tonight. Not tonight, not any night.” That was the night he started to come back to himself. As he recovered he knew that he would never accept anyone else’s definition of him. And he wouldn’t live by the rules of segregation. Period.

Long story shorter, he grew up, and followed his dream of creating a church unlike any that had ever been seen before. A church without borders, a huge group of all colors, ages, descriptions. A church with bright colors, alive, and loud. He went to seminary, was ordained, then felt the rejection of the black clergy in the conference who seemed threatened by him. Eventually, in his early 30s, Cecil was appointed as the minister to Glide Church, a small, white, affluent congregation in an area of San Francisco with high crime and homelessness. Within a few years, Cecil had transformed that church into  the vision that he had carried with him for so many years.

This is authenticity lived out. Claiming his own goodness, truth, and belovedness, not only brought him from the edge of the chasm of darkness, but gave him the insight to see that if he was whole and loved, so was everyone else. 

This is our lifelong journey, to whittle away that which isn't us - our fear, shame, humiliation, masks, egos, baggage - and to live as authentically as possible. The world needs each of us to be who we are.

Love & Light!