seeing ourselves as we really are

preaching a sermon, based on Exodus 3.1-15, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 3rd Sunday in Lent, February 28, 2016

July 1999. My first trip to Paris. One highlight among many, an afternoon at the Louvre. Larger than I had imagined, I rushed around impossibly trying to take it all in. But the more I saw, the less I noticed. Though wonderful, I felt unsatisfied. I wanted less, but more. Someone suggested the smaller Musée d’Orsay. An old railroad station converted into a museum.  One gallery was devoted to Monet and Renoir. I was fascinated by these impressionists who employed small strokes of primary colors simulating reflected light to capture on canvas an image of visual reality. However, when I looked too quickly, I lost sight of the impression. I had to stand still and stand back in order to see.

Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight.”

In an outburst of anger, Moses killed an Egyptian overseer who was beating a Hebrew slave. In fear, he fled.[1] One day, on a mountain, a bush was ablaze, yet not burned.

Moses and the burning bush, Marc Chagall (1966), Musée national Message Biblique Marc Chagall, Nice, France

Had Moses looked too quickly he might not have seen this great sight. To behold this image, this impression of a blazing bush, painted on the canvas of divine inspiration, he had to turn aside, stand still, stand back. Then, from the fire, an ancient symbol of divine presence, Moses heard the voice of God calling him to go back to Egypt to liberate an enslaved people. A call so awesome, fearsome provoking a question of identity, “Who am I that I should go?”[2] Thus, a call beckoning that Moses see himself in a new way, see himself as God saw him.

Amidst this hyper-active life, sometimes we cannot see or hear unless we turn aside, stand still, stand back. This life where all too often our humanity continues to be measured more by the quantity of our doing than the quality of our being. Where the meta-messages of our culture extol rapidity and exalt efficiency. Where we have countless ways to keep in touch without human touch; transmitting many words through many means, sometimes without much meaning. Where we, sometimes, live pseudo-relationally, in Longfellow’s immortal phrase, passing as ships in the night.[3]

In those moments when Pontheolla’s and my individual schedules become our gods, demanding our human sacrifice on the altars of time and attention, our conversations often sound like this:

Pontheolla: Honey, do you remember when I said (fill in the blank)?

me (defensively): You never told me that.

Pontheolla (exasperatingly): Of course I did. You weren’t listening.

me (super-defensively): Well, I couldn’t hear what you only thought you said.

Usually, she had said it and I, too preoccupied, hadn’t heard it.

I am reminded of a short prayer, based on the words of Psalm 46, “Be still, and know that I am God”: Slow me down, Lord! Still my soul that I may know Thee; and in knowing Thee, that I may know me.

Moses turned aside to see. In seeing, he heard.

What do we see and hear? Truth to tell, I understand why I sometimes keep too busy to turn aside, stop, stand back. For when I do, what I often see and hear is the sight and sound of my frailties. My sometimes uncertainty about my identity. Who am I? What do I really think and feel? What do I truly believe? My equally sometimes insecurity about my integrity. Does my behavior always, even largely match what I profess to believe? My fleeting, yet admittedly frequent envies of those I perceive to be more fortunate. My sometimes swiftness of anger and slowness to forgive. My aspiration to live self-sacrificially, yet my self-indulgent appetites expressed in my appreciation, my affection for creaturely convenience and comfort.

I don’t intend to universalize my experience, but I’d bet that we all desire to be integrated persons, our thoughts and feelings, intentions and actions aligning in faithful, ethical order. I’d also bet that when we turn aside, stop, stand back, what we also see are the fragmented images, the fractured impressions of our imperfect inner reality. Yet, in turning aside, we can see ourselves not as we would like to be, but as we really are, the way God sees us.

Through the lens of this earnest and honest seeing we can hear a call as awesome, as fearsome as God’s command to Moses to go back to Egypt to liberate an enslaved people. To turn aside to see ourselves as we really are is an act of liberation; freeing us, if but for a moment, from our projections of how we would like to be seen, even more, freeing us to hear the gospel message of Jesus that we are loved by God just as we are, therefore, still more, freeing us to love ourselves.

This act of liberation is difficult, for it’s hard to divest ourselves of our practiced pretenses. Yet the promise of liberation is great, involving nothing less, nothing else than discovering this truth: God already has set us free.

Some years ago, I found myself (it wasn’t the first and, doubtless, won’t be that last time) stumbling around in the wilderness of my soul, struggling to find myself, to see myself, to be myself, to accept myself as I really was. Not the omni-competent, über-capable person and priest I pretended to be to the world and to myself. But rather the human, as all humans, curious admixture of strength and weakness, wisdom and foolishness, faithfulness and faithlessness, sacrifice and selfishness, triumph and failure. With utmost longing, abject desiring, I wrote this prayer:

God, where are You? Why don’t You answer?

I’ve been calling, crying to You for deliverance!

I am a prisoner of myself. My prison is my self;

daily pretending to be something, someone I’m not.

Save me! Free me to be Yours and, thus, my true self![4]

In that moment of supplication, having turned aside, standing still, standing back, I didn’t see a blazing bush, but I heard the voice of God: I am here. Always, I have been here, listening to you, waiting for you to open the door that you have kept locked from the inside. Trust Me. You already are free. Come out and live in the light of My love.[5]

Ever since then, now nearly fifteen years ago, trusting with an indefatigable hope in that word, verily, trusting in the love of the Lord, a verse of a hymn has become my soul’s song:

Just as I am, without one plea,

but that Thy blood was shed for me,

and that Thou bidd’st me come to Thee,

O Lamb of God, I come, I come.[6]


Illustration: Moses and the burning bush, Marc Chagall (1966), Musée Marc Chagall, Nice, France


[1] See Exodus 2.11-15

[2] My emphases

[3] Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Tales of a Wayside Inn, part 3, section 4 (1874)

[4] From my Journal, 1998-2001, March 18, 2001.

[5] Ibid

[6] From the hymn, Just As I Am (1835), by Charlotte Elliot (1789-1871)

2 thoughts on “seeing ourselves as we really are

  1. Thanks Paul!! I love this sermon! It’s so hard to admit we don’t always see ourselves as we really are right?????

    If I had a dollar for every time I wasn’t completely listening to another person who was speaking to me, Tim included, I’d be rich. I’ve made such a conscious effort over the last year, to STOP moving and thinking while someone I care about is sharing something with me, especially important stuff. I bet everyone has had the same conversation as you shared that you and Pontheolla had. I hope the congregation that heard this sermon today will make more of an effort to listen well, and remember well. Our loved ones deserve it.

    Fragmented images!!! That was my favorite part!! I don’t see myself in pieces like that exactly, BUT how I do see myself clearly and who I am is through little LEGO bricks. I can build something, that’s who I want to be, or who I think others want me to be. Then I can break it apart, and build something else, that is more representative of me. It takes time to pick two bricks to click together. You choose carefully, and decide if they are the right color, size and shape for what you’re trying to convey. I have begun to look at myself even more closely and am examining myself piece by piece, as I do my LEGO pieces brick by brick.

    I find that when I’m quiet and alone with a pile of bricks in front of me (instead of a computer screen in front of me when I can do four or five things) I can hear God more clearly, I can pray more sincerely.

    I believe that to see ourselves as we really are, we have to be in our own “listening space” so we can give our time and attention to the important people and topics in our lives.

    Your prayers are amazing. Thanks for sharing them! I hope you don’t mind if your readers use them. They are perfect not only for Lent, but for anytime we need strength. I feel stronger and better as a person already. I feel ready to be more of who I am.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you, Loretta. Your responses always give me pause and cause me to think anew about what I’ve written/preached. It is because you bring, I believe, your whole self to your reading and reflecting. Hence, what grabs you, what is important to you becomes a wondrous twist or new take or ventures onto a new/another path than I had thought or dreamed or imagined. To wit, your image of using LEGO bricks to build a representation of what you’d like to be OR what others may desire you to be AND what accords most closely with who you are speaks volumes of truth to me. I also find deep resonance with you idea of each of us having our own “listening space.” How so true, so very true for me. As always, thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

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