Herr and Frau Birkenfeld were our landlords in Witten, Germany. We rented a portion of the second story of their house while I was writing my dissertation at the Ruhr University in Bochum.
They were a lovely retired couple and seemed like kindly substitute parents to us. From time to time they would invite us downstairs to watch TV or to share a meal.
At one of these meals the Birkenfelds were excited to share one of their favorite dishes with us: chopped beets and pickled herring. As Frau Birkenfeld served and as we took our first bites, they both leaned forward and looked expectantly for our delighted expressions.
My wife Joy and I are Southern. That means that we’re polite and perhaps a bit over accommodating. We would rather stick our tongue in an electric socket than to disappoint such sweet, gracious hosts.
“Mmmm,” I said. “This is wonderful,” as I ate with what I hoped passed for gusto. In all honestly, I was eating quickly to end my misery. My performance won me a heaping second portion before I could decline.
Sometimes I’m glad that people can’t see what I’m thinking and feeling. Even more frequently I’m grateful that I do not have direct access to the inner life of other people.
Maybe this seems incongruous, even shocking to you. All of us want to be known and accepted for who we are. Right? And clergy—yes, even bishops—are supposed to set an example of Christ’s unceasing, unconditional love for others. So, it may sound as if I don’t want to know, and even refuse to love, people for who they really are.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Then again, maybe you and I diverge on what it means to be your true self.
Over the past half century or so we’ve seen the ascendency of what you might call the Authenticity Model of the Self. According to this model, the true self resides in the inner life of each individual. Being yourself involves expressing the inner “me” and resisting external pressures to hold that self in or to falsify it in order to comply with social expectations.
In other words, the authentic you is you just as you are.
Jesus teaches us something very different. The true self is not a treasure buried deep within the inner recesses of your soul simply awaiting excavation and exposure. The true self is something we become through a combination of natural maturation, personal moral struggle, and divine investment.
Our inner life is a mixture of the wonderful and the frightful. The angels sing with some of our sentiments and reach for the airsickness bag in response to some of our thoughts and impulses.
Compassion and judgment, empathy and irritability, nurturing impulses and control needs simply show up in our hearts without invitation, frequently struggling with each other to gain control of our soul. We often do or say the right thing while resisting thoughts and impulses that are less than laudable.
Jesus puts it like this:
“It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:20-23)
Jesus is not suggesting that we’re rotten to the core. Quite to the contrary, Jesus’s presence among us affirms the goodness at our very marrow. Nevertheless, his presence also redeems and restores all that has decayed and been distorted within us.
We humans are a mixed bag.
We have the capacity to love and to understand, to nurture and to create, to sacrifice ourselves for a greater good, and to stand up for those whose voice would otherwise be harshly silenced.
Competing with our impulses to compassion and justice, kindness and patience, throb the urges to make everything about ourselves, to diminish people different from us, and to grow deaf to the suffering of others.
Our egos can be bruised by petty slights. We can resent someone else’s good fortune. Their success can seem to compete with our own privileged status, to challenge our life agenda, and to threaten our security.
Our true self emerges from our inner struggle. The moral exemplars of Christian history are not those who had only the sweetest impulses and purest thoughts. Rather, we seek to emulate those spiritual grownups who have resisted their lesser impulses to give expression to a nobler sense of self.
Secular moral theorists and social scientists can say similar things about character formation. But we are followers of Jesus. We believe that character formation is more than the personal achievement of individuals. Jesus shapes our character.
In the Holy Eucharist we hand our motley selves to Christ. He gives us back to ourselves as the very Body of Christ. Over time, Jesus is transforming our soul—along with our heart and mind and actions—into the very image of God. Christ changes who we are inside and out. He shapes us into our true selves.
Paradoxically, laying aside the Authenticity Model of Self and accepting what David Brooks
calls the Crooked Timber Model of Self makes us more accepting of ourselves and more generous in our response each other.
The crooked timber approach allows us to love ourselves as imperfect. We yearn to be more than we are, to make moral improvements in our lives, without condemning ourselves for being a work in progress.
By the same logic, we can show compassion for others precisely because they are on the same path we are walking. They are doing hard inner work, wrestling with their own impulses to be a lesser self than they yearn to be. We can understand when they slip and appreciate even the small steps they take forward. We’ve been there.
I don’t need to see a person’s inner life to know her true self. And you don’t have to have access to my thoughts and feelings to see my true self. As St. Paul puts it, we are all a new creation in Christ. In the Eucharist, Christ is making us into his own Body.
God sees our true selves. God sees each of us through Jesus, as the Body of Christ. And that is how Jesus invites us to see each other.
Bishop Jake preached this sermon at Trinity in Natchitoches, Louisiana.