Dick Latessa and Harvey Fierstein as Wilbur and Edna in the Original Broadway Cast of “Hairspray”
One would hardly think, upon observing modern first world societies, that an appeal to love oneself would need to be made, but, alas, I fear that it does; and the urgency for getting out that message may be much more pressing than many observers know. One of Shakespeare’s characters, Polonius in “Hamlet” it was, said, “To thine own self be true,” and long, long before that was spoken on an English stage, the ancient Hebrews established an ethical principle that we must love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
The writer of book of Leviticus presented these as words from God Godself: “You will not exact vengeance on, or bear any sort of grudge against, the members of your race, but will love your neighbor as yourself. I am Yahweh” (Lev 19:18 New Jerusalem Bible, NJB). A few verses later in the same chapter of Leviticus, we find an extension of what we’ve just read:
If you have resident aliens in your country, you will not molest them. You will treat resident aliens as though they were native-born and love them as yourself--for you yourselves were once aliens in Egypt. I am Yahweh your God (Lev 19:33-34 NJB).
Loving in this context is action. The degree to which emotions are involved is essentially inconsequential. To summarize, then, we must take active steps to ensure the well-being of others in the same way that we would take steps to provide for our own well-being. The move between these two passages from the book of Leviticus is far-reaching. Love of neighbor as self begins with neighbor as a person of my own race or clan, but love of neighbor as self ends with neighbor as anyone outside my race as well--in other words, all people.
The measurement of how much to love others is the degree to which we love ourselves, and as has been pointed out repeatedly by preachers and teachers--much more than by persons actually demonstrating this principle--love of self is taken to be an essential part of the equation. Long before modern psychology was born, there were the highly intelligent, highly pragmatic ancient Hebrews realizing that if one didn’t love herself or himself, the possibility for loving others was--what’s the biblical term?--ZILCH.
Remember, now. The love the teachers had in mind here as they tried to understand God might or might not be attached to warm and affirming feelings. If you have the matching feelings, outstanding; and if you don’t, too bad! The end expectation is the same: taking concrete steps to make certain that one’s well-being is provided for. So, I may not feel great about myself today--for lots of reasons or for no particular reason at all--but I’m going to act in ways that preserve my well-being anyway.
Jesus went directly to Leviticus in his own summation of the core of the whole long list of ancient laws:
You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second resembles it: You must love your neighbor as yourself (Matt 22:37-39 NJB).
What we don’t often recognize when we read Jesus’ famous application of the Hebrew Bible into his own context is that he was speaking to his fellow Jews, many of whom hated Samaritans and many of whom hated Romans. Even Legalistic Leviticus had said, “Act in loving ways toward people of your own race AND to everyone else too.” Nobody wanted to be reminded of that, and few intended to try to live it out.
Let’s get back to the heart of the principle, though. We can’t act appropriately to others unless we are acting appropriately toward ourselves. Self-love is not arrogance or narcissism; self-love is the foundation of health and happiness, and it’s doubtful that we can act lovingly toward others if we lack emotional health and some degree of happiness or, at least, contentment.
I was in the grocery store the other day--standing in line, waiting to pay. Suddenly the shopping music was interrupted not by a loud voice urging me to try the fresh-baked apple and strawberry pies but rather the voice of none other than Dr. Phil. It was so nice--getting free psychobabble with the purchase of my groceries. Dr. Phil’s message for the day was: “Be your own best friend.” The message was reasonable, and Dr. Phil didn’t say anything in those two minutes to irritate me, which was rather amazing given my track record with him and the fact that if I have control of dials at home where you couldn’t pay me to listen to him. I’m not recommending, by a long stretch, that you read or listen to Dr. Phil, but this one little snippet was on target.
I have a written reference in one of my notebooks. Remember those? You know. They had several pieces of paper glued or otherwise bound together so that you could use a pen or a pencil to write things on the pages. I realize that some of you may have begun using Palm Pilots in kindergarten and never were introduced to notebooks. Anyway, they did exist before Palms and personal computers. In one of those, I have a reference from the journal, “Psychology Today,” that must have come from the Hippie era; the headline read: “Dig and Honor Yourself.” When’s the last time someone encouraged you to DIG someone or some thing?
What I noted from the article were several affirmations about self-love:
Self-love is necessary in order for me to make the kinds of changes I must make in myself to be healthy for the long haul.
Self-love doesn’t just happen; it has nothing to do with luck, and nothing to do with the grace of God. A person must create or establish her or his own self-love.
Honoring ourselves in love is the birthright of each human being.
I have not been able to identify the source of this quote, but I think it is worth our consideration: “You can explore the universe looking for somebody who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and you will not find that person anywhere.”
When I began, I mentioned that it might surprise some people to learn that in our me-me-me culture, we need to help people love themselves. I restate that. Too many in our human family loathe themselves.
Various causes of over-eating obesity and other addictions can be connected directly to self-hatred.
Therapists who deal with clients who have repeatedly been domestically abused frequently find self-loathing in the person who keeps going back for more.
Similarly, helping professionals often find that those who struggle with the damnable darkness of depression at their core hate themselves.
Those who put themselves into dangerous and life-threatening situations--such as reckless driving--surely hate themselves and others.
I have to assume that someone who takes her or his own life has wrestled with self-hatred--typically for a very long time--and feels that she or he has lost the wrestling match.
If we do not love ourselves, sadly, we can never to any great degree experience the love of others or the love of God, both subjects that we will take up later today. That’s scary, though, isn’t it? I don’t think it’s totally a matter of self-love having to happen first; I’ve certainly seen people transformed by the love of another person and certainly made more able to love themselves because of the power of love from that other people or those other persons.
Many of us in the Jesus Movement have had a tremendous contribution made to our ability to move toward self-love by the realization that God loved us before we had any emotional or spiritual capability to love God in return. Further, exploring the reality that God is love, we have found that God’s love is unconditional. If the Life-source and the Life-force, which is how I conceive of the reality I call “God,” loves me unconditionally and, through whatever means, sent the divine love energies my way before I could respond in love and with no requirement that when able I would respond in love, that is more powerful than I have words to describe.
One of the really sad chapters in the development of theology was that in some branches of God-thought-processes some influential thinkers tragically tied proof of divine affirmation to the good life--good health, good money, good life-flow overall. Conversely, anything unfortunate or bad or evil was taken to be confirmation of divine punishment. It’s very, very hard to love oneself if one is convinced that God is angry and causing or allowing--essentially the same things--horrible turns of events. Therefore, if sickness came to someone or her or his loved one or a flood or a tsunami or a string of losing lotto numbers, the person had been prepped into believing that God, through those often horrible circumstances, wanted to cause pain in order to punish. Loving oneself in the midst or the aftermath of that kind of pain that God Godself was responsible for, pain intentionally inflicted by the “Almighty” onto the helpless, might well become impossible for the rest of life for the person taught to believe in the god of pain masquerading as a God of love.
The words of W. H. Auden: “God is Love, we are taught as children to believe. But when we first begin to get some inkling of how God loves us, we are repelled; it seems so cold, indeed, not love at all as we understand the word.” So sad, so widely believed, such a misunderstanding of God. We will not love ourselves if, as children, we are led to believe that everything happening to us is God’s doing.
First John, chapter 3, verse 1: “You must see what great love [God] has lavished on us by letting us be called God's children--which is what we are!” With that in our consciousness, we have a shot at what is emotionally essential: self-love.
A psychologist named Michael Conner, writes this about romantic love:
Romantic love is a deep emotional, sexual and spiritual recognition and regard for the value of another person and relationship....Romantic love is a sanctuary, and a source of nourishment and energy. Sometimes romantic love is the only point of certainty, and the only thing that is solid and real in the midst of chaos and ambiguity.
Dr. Conner obviously assumes in his definition of romantic love a level of maturity on the part of the person who feels it and offers it. His sentiments are beautiful and moving. Any of us who has ever experienced the kind of love he describes identify and celebrate.
A couple of years ago, some Italian scientists--Italians, of all people!--came out with research reports leading them to believe that much of the excitement we feel early on in a relationship is either spurred or sustained physiologically; the physical dimension of love stays at a peak for about a year and then levels off--even in couples under 30 years of age. This is very disturbing for those of us who value long-term monogamy! And, yet, there it was in electronic black and white; scientists from a part of the world known for great romance were claiming that proteins in the human blood stream known as neurotrophins, which keep the sex drive high and the other feelings of excitement that go with being in love also high, begin disappearing after just a year. It’s not that people fall out of love after the neurotophins pack up and go; it’s just that--and how clinical can you get?--the scientists say “acute love” diminishes, and in its place “companionate” love takes center stage. If you have or do experience this sensation, don’t panic and don’t think love is leaving your relationship; only protein levels have!
There are plenty of people out there who simply aren’t cut out for long-term relationships. As I’ve said before, we do a great disservice to people trying to pair everyone up and imply in the process that being single is a less desirable state than the state of wedded bliss. Even if everything about being wedded were bliss, and it might not be in every single marriage (I’ve heard), not everyone is cut out for long-term monogamy or, by the way, for parenthood.
Before you change your diet and try to force more proteins on your mate, if you are one of those cut-out-to-be-coupled ones, there’s another study you should know about. This study was conducted by both neurophysiologists and anthropologists. They found that while sexual love and romantic love are very powerful, though separate, impulses, the more powerful of the two is love. Furthermore, there are parallels between maturing love and brain adaptations. When sexual activity declines, if that should occur, the relationship may well remain intact and strong because romantic love, in this study, was found to be much stronger.
There may be no conflict between the two studies, because the first may well be equating infatuation with romantic love. According to one of the researchers, Dr. Helen Fisher who is an anthropologist at Rutgers, “Love is one of the most powerful of all human experiences. It is definitely more powerful than the sex drive."
Both sides of the brain get involved in the love process, but the right brain controls most of the emotions of love. The left side of the brain, however, tells us if we like how someone looks, her or his manner, style, and so on.
Even though not everyone is cut out for coupling, it’s tough not to admire long-term couples--those who stick together through thin and thick down through the years. You heard the painful passage from 1 Samuel earlier detailing Hannah’s agony about not being able to bear a son for her husband, Elkanah. In his polygamous society, Elkanah had two wives; one had given him several children, but--the biblical storyteller tells us--he still loved Hannah more, even though she was not able to have children. That’s a very powerful testament to the love Elkanah felt for Hannah over the long haul; if not already, then eventually, the Mishnah reveals that a man could divorce a woman who was unable to conceive. It was serious stuff.
Here is a husband who loved his wives in a culture of arranged marriages that didn’t expect love in marriage, and he loved the wife who couldn’t conceive more than the one who could. One day, Elkanah saw Hannah crying her heart out over her plight, and he said to her, “Hannah, why are you crying? Why are you not eating anything? Why are you so sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” This marriage would last, don’t you think?
The Broadway musical, “Hairspray,” is an offbeat story about an overweight teen-age girl, Tracy, and her overweight mother, Edna. Despite her weight, Edna has found the love of her life, and, before the show is over, Tracy will too! The song, “You’re Timeless to Me,” which Edna and her husband, Wilbur, sing to each other is a kooky, though moving, tribute to long-term romantic love. In the original Broadway cast, Harvey Fierstein plays Edna, and Dick Latessa plays Wilbur. In the John Waters film that preceded the musical, Waters cast a male in the role of Edna, and the tradition has continued on Broadway. If you happened to catch the more recent movie version of “Hairspray,” you saw John Travolta as Edna, and Christopher Walken as Wilbur.
Wilbur sings to Edna:
Some folks cant stand it
Say time’s like a bandit
But I take the opposite view
Cause when I need a lift
Time brings a gift
Another day with you
A twist or a waltz
It’s all the same schmaltz
With just a change in the scenery
You’ll never be old hat
You're timeless to me.
Some people have the added pressure, challenge, in a love relationship because they fall in love with someone whom others, if not society at large, consider inappropriate for them. There are those who fall in love with someone already spoken for, already committed, and their love connection becomes what we call an affair. Whether on ethical grounds or on pragmatic grounds, wisdom favors staying out of those. If someone wants to be with you, then she or he should say, “Goodbye,” to the person already in her or his life.
Open relationships are more prevalent these days than they were just a few years ago when a handful of couples of all ages claimed to spice up their sex lives by “swinging.” Much to the frustration of those who want to use the Bible to give specifics to the marriage relationship, the Bible--both the Hebrew scriptures and Christian scriptures--were written in contexts where polygamy was both legal and the norm, as with Elkanah and Hannah and Penniah. There was a double standard, of course. Men could have multiple wives--as many as they could afford. And women could have one husband only.
The Bible would not condemn a man’s involvement with multiple women as long as none of them was married to another man. Even so, I believe that an open marriage or an open relationship or partnership is no marriage at all. If you’re the multiple partners kind of guy or gal, why bother with marriage anyway?
For many homosexuals, loving someone of their same gender is forbidden love. It’s so ironic to me that conservatives criticize gays and lesbians, especially gays, for being promiscuous, but they do everything they can to prevent long-term gay and lesbian relationships. This love shouldn’t be forbidden love.
I spent a fair amount of time this past Friday morning completing a multipage research survey sent to a host of clergypersons across the country. The researchers gathering the data are associated with the Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron in Ohio, and they wanted to find out all about the ways churches and their clergy are responding to a host of social and political issues with a special interest in perspectives on involvement in the country’s political process and on gay/lesbian issues.
The survey kept asking me to speak for you. That’s a joke, isn’t it? I’m sure the computers won’t be able to read the notes I kept writing into the margins of my answer sheet. “I can’t speak for my church.” “Different members have different views.”
One question that was asked well in the “gay/lesbian section” was, “If legal, would the majority of the members of your church support you in performing a union ceremony for a lesbian or gay couple.” I checked, “Yes.”
No one word or set of words can be fully descriptive of God. My companion terms, “Life-source” and “Life-force,” work well for me, but they are inadequate unless I add, “God is love.”
Having gotten that far, there is still a major conceptualization to deal with. Is God a personal entity or an impersonal force? And “impersonal” in this context isn’t pejorative; it simply means that God is more “abstract” than a God who can be considered personal.
As you can well imagine, in this congregation the perspectives toward God run the gamut. I doubt that there is anyone here who thinks of God as the ancient, white-bearded grandfather sitting up in heaven making it his business to monitor the good deeds and the bad deeds of every human being so that an eternal abode can someday be assigned, and you know what the two options would be! This widely held view of God makes God and Santa Claus a lot alike except that God doesn’t slide down your chimney, and Santa doesn’t send you at the end of your earthly life to heaven or hell.
Even though that extreme may not be embraced by members and friends of Silverside, there are those among us who certainly do view God as personal in ways like most of the biblical writers must have. The dangers of anthropomorphizing acknowledged, some in our number believe that God is a communicative spirit, that an entity doesn’t have to have a body and a brain to think and will and relate. They take biblical references to God with human traits--God’s hands, God’s hair, God’s hind quarters revealed to Moses, God’s emotions--to be meaningful metaphors, but not literally or at least not the same way that humans have hands and hair and emotions.
The biblical writers for the most part certainly conceived of God in personal and anthropomorphic terms. In Genesis, God is even walking in the Garden of Eden and chatting face to face with Eve and Adam. In the prophecy of Isaiah, Isaiah sees God wearing a garment with a long, flowing train. In the prophecy of Ezekiel and in the book of Revelation, God is seen sitting on a throne.
Jesus wasn’t a biblical writer, but certainly his teachings and his deeds are the basis for the core of Christian scripture, and Jesus, while avoiding the radical anthropomorphisms, conversed with God as to a person. Jesus referred to God as “Father,” and in the case of the Lord’s Prayer he addresses God with the Aramaic word, Aramaic being Jesus’ native tongue, for “Daddy.”
Others of our members see God as a non-personal force, and the degree to which human beings can relate to and/or be guided by this God varies from one wild Silverside liberal to the next. A few months ago, Margaret Walker--I think it was Margaret--pointed several of us to an online assessment that was intended to help us understand with what religious tradition our views of God would place us. I came out, according to my survey results, just where I’m comfortable, just where I thought I’d be, in liberal Protestantism or Christian Unitarianism. Some of you who took the same survey were told to go out and start your own religious movement, that none presently exist to accommodate your liberal views of God!
You see, an abstract God is much more difficult to work with than a personal God. An abstract God is as invisible and as unpredictable as the wind. Jesus, no less than Jesus, described God as spirit-wind that one couldn’t see, but the results of whose movement one could definitely follow.
In his now-famous nighttime conversation with Nicodemus, part of what Jesus said was this: “The wind blows where it pleases; you can hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8 NJB). What is brilliant about this teaching is that in the written version, in Greek, and I assume it was also true in Aramaic because it was in Hebrew, the word for “wind” is exactly the same word for “spirit,” capital “S” and lower case “s.” An interpreter must determine based on context and literary background how πνευμα (pneuma) should be translated. The words are entirely interchangeable. Jesus could just as easily have meant “the Spirit blows where it wills” as “the wind blows where it wills.” Maybe he meant to imply a little of both. The Spirit of God is an invisible wind, but you can certainly see where it has blown and where it is blowing now.
One of the many reasons Alice Walker’s novel, The Color Purple, stirs me the way it does is the way God is conceived of by various characters. Shug Avery evidently speaks for Alice Walker herself. Alice Walker’s God is not the God Shug grew up with in the church where her daddy was the preacher, and it certainly wasn’t the God who allowed Celie’s stepfather to rape her or the God who allowed Celie’s husband to beat her and separate her from the only person in the world whom she knew for sure loved her; her sister, Nettie. Alice Walker’s God is or at least was when she wrote this Pulitzer Prize winning novel the God who makes Godself known in nature.
Shug insists on referring to God with the neuter pronoun, “it.” This is the way the dialogue goes in the movie version of the story:
Shug: More than anything God love admiration.
Celie: You saying God is vain?
Shug: No, not vain, just wanting to share a good thing. I think it pisses God off when you walk by the color purple in a field and don’t notice it.
Celie: You saying it just wanna be loved like it say in the bible?
Shug: Yeah, Celie. Everything wanna be loved. Us sing and dance, and holla just wanting to be loved. Look at them trees. Notice how the trees do everything people do to get attention... except walk?Oh, yeah, this field feels like singing!
If you listen to my prayers, you can tell that I’m addressing a God whom I believe can be addressed. If you catch a quick nap when I pray, never mind.
In any case, the way you hear me pray in public is exactly the way I pray in private except my private prayers are obviously more, well, private. I can speak whatever is on my mind or in my heart because the God who is hearing my prayer hears--not in the way a human hears, but in the way that the spiritual entity who at least initiated the creative evolutionary processes that resulted in homo sapiens hears. And this God is utterly loving. I fully recognize that love is a metaphor and an approximation when ascribed to God, but it gives me a concept with which to work.
I do not have a human-like entity in mind when I pray. I’ve long since given up the images of the God from my childhood, but I still believe the loving force to whom I voice my concerns or to whom I open the raw emotions I can’t put into words draws me into the divine force, which is pure love--also unseen like the wind.
The God to whom I relate does not condemn or command or coerce, but rather loves and lures. A hymn we sang recently begins with words that thrill and console my soul: “Oh Love that wilt not let me go, I rest my weary soul in Thee.”
I don’t have to know or understand exactly what is there to relate to it. I do think, though, that it’s vitally important to realize that much of who God and where God is, is within us. Part of the divine resides in each human being, but there is more to God than what is within me. Still, when I ponder God in prayer, I know that God is taking in what I communicate from within me and not from way out there somewhere.
My God is personable, but not a person; not a grandiose human being. My prayers to God do not persuade God to fix something I think is broken, but rather as my mentor and friend, Dr. E. Glenn Hinson, taught me, they add love energies to God’s love energies; and there are times when love alters the course of circumstances.
No conception of God that takes away the mystery of God is either workable or legitimate. Just because you can’t see God, though, is no proof at all that God isn’t there...or here.