Jul 11th, Listening to Your Life Finding God in Unexpected Places: Your Shadow.
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Jul 11th, Listening to Your Life Finding God in Unexpected Places: Your Shadow.
In the early 1990s, as a part of my ethnic studies, I took a course in the ethics of HIV AIDS. The most profound part of that course for me was that we were paired with someone who had AIDS. Our assignment was to learn from that person we were paired with to learn not only about the disease of AIDS, but to learn about their life experience with it. Since I had not known anyone with AIDS at this point, I had much to learn.
The man with whom I was paired, I’ll call him Alan for this story, was in his late 20s and had lived with AIDS for about a year. When I met him, he said that he was not a particularly religious man but had grown up in a religious family. Part of his struggle through the process of coping with his diagnosis was dealing with the fractured relationship with his family that his homosexuality and now his AIDS had caused in the early 1990s.
There was a lot of societal judgments about people with AIDS and the prejudices toward gay men. Particularly, Allen had dealt with his families and society’s judgments for several years. But with the onset of AIDS and the prognosis of his approaching end of life, his experience with his guilt and anger led him into a dark night of emotional and spiritual despair. Allen was surrounded by good friends, but he felt increasingly alone in his struggle, where once he was able to build an emotional wall around the judgments of society and the pain that his family expressed over his sexuality.
Now he felt as though those wounds were deep in his soul. Allen knew that my coursework at the time was through a theological seminary. And so some of our discussions were around his experience of God in this wounded place of his soul. Much I what I want to share with you this morning begins with my learning from Allen and the wisdom from other teachers and mentors along my own journey of life. Richard RUR has taught much about what he calls the shadow self.
This is the part of us that we usually hide away deep within our souls. It is the self that contains all the images that we have learned of how we are supposed to be. But art, it is the self that contains the wounds that we have received or wounds we have given to others in our life that are too painful to let into our consciousness for a very long and that we keep private and hidden from others. The shadow self is the place where the wounds of self judgment, the hyper critical voices within us that tell us how far the reality of our life is from the more perfect life we believe we’re supposed to live and we try to portray for others to see.
This shadow self is a place of great vulnerability for us. And so we hide it and hide it from ourselves and others because it challenges the image of our self-worth that we want to believe in and want to project to others. As Raw says, the movement to second half of life wisdom has much to do with the necessary shadow work and the emergence of the healthy, self-critical thinking which alone allows us to see beyond our own shadow and disguise and define who we are hidden with Christ in God.
But this is an irony because what Allen experienced and what we have experienced and often learned is that God is light. God doesn’t exist in the shadows or in this place of darkness in our souls. In fact, we have learned that God’s light and our darkness, indeed the darkness we know exists in our culture and our society, are two separate realities. We have been taught that light and dark cannot coexist. We can even point to early scripture to prove our belief and our point to where God in the beginning separated the dark from the light to make day and night, or the gospel of John, where it says the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.
What we have learned is that darkness and light, spiritually speaking, are separate realities. And so our experience of the darkness which we carry in our shadow self, is also an experience of the absence of light, the absence. Of God, when we try to live as if God is only pure light, then we can’t handle the darkness that is within because we believe God can’t possibly exist in our inner darkness. And this adds to our pain of the experience of our shadow self.
It is why the mystics call this encounter the dark night of the soul. So what I want to say to us this morning is that what we have learned about the separation of light and dark and therefore what we have learned about the absence of God in the darkness of some of our experience in life, all that is wrong. God lives in the dark as well as the light. And it’s because of this reality. If we will allow ourselves to experience all we hold in the shadow parts of our soul instead of hiding from it, we will find an encounter with the shadow.
Self is a place not only of crucifixion, of death, caused by the judgments and wounds we have carried there, but also of resurrection and the beginning of new life. But to get there, we must relearn some theology. First, we’ve learned that God is perfection, and one result of this belief is that God could not exist in our imperfection. There’s a scripture that teaches a different understanding of God’s presence in our imperfection. It comes from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians in Chapter four, verses seven through 11.
But we have this treasure in clay jars so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but we’re not crushed, perplexed, but not driven to despair. Persecuted but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed. Always carrying in our body the crucifixion of Jesus so that the resurrection of life in Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.
In this passage, Paul teaches us that God exists in the imperfections of our life, in the very middle of those imperfections, the life of God is present in the places that we try to keep hidden in the dark places of our shadow self. God is right there. We carry within our souls, even in the places we try to keep hidden and hide from the light and Life-Giving presence of God in Jesus Christ. It is precisely because God existed in the Christ when He was crucified, when the suffering caused by the darkness in humanity’s soul was there.
That we know God is also present in the dark corners of our own shadow self. But here’s the problem. If we are always avoiding encounters with the parts of our soul, which we want to keep hidden, those wounds that we have received or caused those self judgments we have learned and accepted because somewhere someone told us we should live and be a certain way and we’re not living up to that model. If we learn to survive by keeping all of these parts of our soul hidden way down deep inside, then then we’re not only avoiding the experience of these shadows, but we’re also missing the experience of the grace of God that exists in this shadow self and the offer of a resurrected life, a life that is free of all the weight we’ve been carrying in our shadow self.
So God exists in the darkness as well as the light. God’s perfection doesn’t keep separate from us, but lives in our very fragile clay vessels, right alongside and even inside our own darkness as well as our light. Now, here’s the miraculous new life that is available to us. If we know that God is alive in the shadows as well as the light of our lives, that God lives there, too, then we experience a gift of grace that enables us to honestly accept ourselves as beloved by God, the God who loves all of us, imperfections, wounds, even our self judgments, all of us.
This awareness is the prerequisite for us to see and experience the power of the resurrection, which offers us a new creation in exchange for the old life weighed down by our shadow self. God in the Christ says that shadow self is not the real. You go through the pain of an honest encounter with your shadow, and I will be with you, giving you strength not only to survive, but to rise up into a new life. This new life is an honest life, not the make believe version we have tried to portray.
This new life is a more peace filled life, with less struggle and energy spend to try to hide parts of ourselves from others as well as ourselves. And this new life is a freedom filled life, what Christian theology calls a salvation life, a life saved from all that has weighed us down and prevented us from living the full gift of life that God offers to us again. Richard Rauh says the work of the shadowland can go on for a long time if you do not meet the unconditional love of God, if you do not encounter radical grace being loved in your unworthiness, the spiritual journey will not continue.
You have to discover God as unearned favor unearned gratuity, or you will regress. You will go backward. But if we will do the work, if we will trust God’s grace in our shadowland, then the new life that is offered and that we will live will also be a gift to others as well as ourselves, because the life we will live will be more authentic our life. We’ll show the wounds, as well as the scars of our healing and new health and others will trust us with their vulnerabilities because they can see that we have wrestled with our own.
It is what I think Paul means when he says we’re always being given up to death for Jesus sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. The communities in which we live need such authentic human beings. Our new life will reflect both the struggle and the light of God’s grace and others in our relationships will notice. They’ll notice the communities in which we live need us as being resurrected, authentic human beings. Do you remember how most fairy tales and they lived happily ever after?
Right. But I wonder what happened to all the pain and wounds experienced up to this happily ever after ending? I don’t think they went away. And I want to know the rest of the story of how the hero or heroine grew from their encounter with their wounds along the way. I wanted to know how the damsel that was rescued learn to trust life again. If I knew these things, I could trust the story as being more authentic and not just a make believe fairy tale.
And the same is true in the story of our real life. People will trust our authentic self that shows the wounds we have survived, healed and learned from author Brandon Manning in his book Arbors Child says In a futile attempt to erase our past, we deprive the community of our healing gift. If we conceal our wounds out of fear and shame, our inner darkness can never be illuminated nor become a light for others. We bear a light in a clay vessel.
All people in relationship need authentic souls of life, where imperfection and wounds are not roadblocks to life, but passageways through which the love of God is known and the soul can shine through. It was a year or so after I had ended my graduate studies when I received a call from a friend of Alan’s who told me of Alan’s death. He shared with me that Alan had found the grace to live the end of his life in gratitude and peace. It was a gift to me just to hear that, because I believe Alan encountered the grace of God in the darkness of the experience of his disease.
I know that for me, his light shined out of the experience of his pain, and his life was a gift of authentic living. This is the kind of life that we are encouraged to live an authentic life that survives our wounds, but so much more that shows the strength of God, that helps us live through them to not have to live in the shadows anymore, but to be our authentic self. May all our lives be so in.