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Wholeheartedly – Authentic and Free

Date: 02/07/2023/Speaker: Ps Pauline Ong

Wholeheartedly Authentic and Free
2 Corinthians 3:12-18
2 July 2023

Prayer

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, God, Earth-maker, Pain-Bearer, Life-Giver whose love and truth sets us free. Amen.

“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” (2 Cor 3:17)

Question 1 (Multiple Choice)

To what extent are you able to freely be your authentic self in church?

The reality is that often, it is in religious environments like church that people feel least likely to be able to be fully themselves. Perhaps it is the weight of expectations of the people around, or our own expectations and the idea that we have to be “pure and holy,” and our image of what holiness means. But it’s common for people to consciously or unconsciously mask up because they are afraid of being judged. It’s sad that it happens a lot in churches but it doesn’t have to be this way. We can do better and be better.

Author Connie Zweig writes about shifting our emphasis from our “roles” to our “souls” as we grow older, and how it allows us to discover a deeper identity:  

When we were growing up, we were all figuring out our roles, and often our roles became our identity. And this is true of us in our church environments too – our roles become our identity. Sometimes we identify with our persona so strongly that we become experts at denial, and learn to eliminate or deny anything that doesn’t support it. Our shadow self makes us all into hypocrites on some level, someone playing a role rather than being “real.” In some ways, we’re all in some kind of closet and are even encouraged by society to play our roles.

But when we don’t know who we really are, we are unconsciously living someone else’s life, or at least someone else’s expectations for us. And this does violence to ourselves, our relationship with God, and ultimately to others.

So how do we shift from our roles to our souls, and live more authentic and free lives?

As Christians, we often think what God expects of us is purity. But what God truly wants for us is holiness.

“Purity is not holiness.” -Nadia Bolz-Weber

What’s the difference between purity and holiness?

Holiness means “to be made whole”, while purity means “to be set apart”.

She describes how emphasizing “purity” can lead us away from holiness:  

Our purity systems, even those established with the best of intentions, do not make us holy. They only create insiders and outsiders, as people shame each other in church, at home, on social media, etc. Purity most often leads to self-righteousness, pride or to despair, not holiness.

Because holiness is about union with, and purity is about separation from….  

To connect to the holy is to access the deepest, juiciest part of our spirits. Perhaps this is why we set up so many boundaries, protections, and rules around both sex and religion…. But when the boundaries, protections, and rules become more important than the sacred thing they are intended to protect, casualties ensue.  

But no matter how much we strive for purity in our minds, bodies, spirits, or ideologies, purity is not the same as holiness. It’s just easier to define what is pure than what is holy, so we pretend they are interchangeable.  

Bolz-Weber points to Jesus’ actions to encourage seeking holiness over purity:  

Jesus seemed to want connection with those around him, not separation. He touched human bodies deemed unclean as if they were themselves holy: dead little girls, lepers, menstruating women. People of his day were disgusted that Jesus’ disciples would eat with unwashed hands, and they tried to shame him for it. But he responded, “It is not what enters the mouth that makes one unclean but what comes out of it that defiles” (Matthew 15:11). He was loyal to the law, just not at the expense of the people.  

Jesus kept violating boundaries of decency to get to the people on the other side of that boundary, those who’d been wounded by it, those who were separated from the others: the motherless, the sex workers, the victims, and the victimizers. He cared about real holiness, the connection of things human and divine, the unity of sinners, the coming together of that which was formerly set apart.  

-Nadia Bolz-Weber

Now that we know the difference between purity and holiness, how does that help us become more authentic Christians?

Question 2 (Word Cloud)

What does it mean to be authentic?

“Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.” – Brene Brown

“Believing that you’re enough is what gives you the courage to be authentic.” – Brene Brown

What does it mean to be free?

To me, I define freedom from a Christian perspective as:

Free from shame

Free to embrace who we are

Free to live from our true identity in God

Free to become all that God created us to be

“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”

2 Cor 3:12-18 (NRSVue)

12 Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with complete frankness, 13 not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that[d] was being set aside. 14 But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, the same veil is still there; it is not unveiled since in Christ it is set aside. 

15 Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds,[e] 16 but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another, for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.

What was Paul talking about? He was actually referring to Moses in Exodus 34.

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai after forty days and forty nights, “his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord.” He had been radically transformed by his direct encounter with the infinite God. People were scared to look at him or even come near him. It was too much for them, so “Moses put a veil over his face.” In this case, the veil “filtered” the unbearable glory of God.

Then in the Transfiguration story, Jesus is the New Moses. In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he says that “we are not like Moses, who veiled his face.” In fact, “whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.” And so we, “who with unveiled faces all reflect the God’s glory, and we are being transformed into God’s likeness.” In this instance, the veil is removed because it doesn’t merely filter but obscures the glory of God.

2 Cor 3:12-18 (The Message)

12-15 With that kind of hope to excite us, nothing holds us back. Unlike Moses, we have nothing to hide. Everything is out in the open with us. He wore a veil so the children of Israel wouldn’t notice that the glory was fading away—and they didn’t notice…Only Christ can get rid of the veil so they can see for themselves that there’s nothing there.

16-18 Whenever, though, they turn to face God as Moses did, God removes the veil and there they are—face-to-face! They suddenly recognize that God is a living, personal presence, not a piece of chiseled stone. And when God is personally present, a living Spirit, that old, constricting legislation is recognized as obsolete. We’re free of it! All of us! Nothing between us and God, our faces shining with the brightness of God’s face.

And so we are transfigured much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like God.

2 Cor 4:1-2 (The Message)

Since God has so generously let us in on what God is doing, we’re not about to throw up our hands and walk off the job just because we run into occasional hard times. We refuse to wear masks and play games.

We don’t maneuver and manipulate behind the scenes. And we don’t twist God’s Word to suit ourselves. Rather, we keep everything we do and say out in the open, the whole truth on display, so that those who want to can see and judge for themselves in the presence of God.

It is not easy to take down the masks that we so often use to protect ourselves. But those masks don’t actually protect us. They just keep us from being fully seen, heard and understood, which is what we long for in the first place as human beings.

When we stand before God face-to-face, we know there is nothing to hide. In fact, God wants our authentic selves to be seen, heard and understood. God made us, not for us to be hidden behind some mask or veil. God made us so we can see God face-to-face, and to see, hear and understand one another authentically. When God removes the veil, the mask, we realize we are free and nothing stands between us and God. God sees us and loves us just as we are.

Not only that, Paul says our faces are shining with the brightness of God’s face. We reflect the glory of God as we are being transformed in God’s likeness. Isn’t that amazing to know?

Question 3 (Word Cloud)

What does authentic spirituality look like to you?

In a devotion titled The Truth Will Set You Free, Richard Rohr says:

Authentic spirituality is always on some level or in some way about letting go.

In a consumer society, however, we have little training in how to let go of anything. Rather, more is usually considered better. Jesus said, “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Once we truly see what traps us and keeps us from freedom, we should see the need to let it go. As Meister Eckhart said, “the spiritual life is more about subtraction than it is addition.” But capitalist societies make everything into addition.

The freedom Jesus promises involves letting go of our small self, our cultural biases, and even our fear of loss and death. Freedom is letting go of wanting more and better things; it is letting go of our need to control and manipulate God and others. It is even letting go of our need to know and our need to be right—which we only discover with maturity. We become ever more free as we let go of our three primary motivations: our need for power and control, our need for safety and security, and our need for affection and esteem.

Healthy spirituality leads us to true liberation by naming what’s real, what’s true, and what works—now and in the long run. This Ultimate Reality, the way things really work, is quite simply described as love. The wise ones recognize that without a certain degree of inner freedom, we cannot and will not truly love. Spirituality is about finding that freedom. Jesus even commanded it (John 13:34)—though I’m not sure that we really can order or demand love—to show us how central it is.

Most of us didn’t grow up thinking of religion as a path of freedom. Instead, we were taught a set of prescriptions, dos and don’ts, musts, oughts, and shoulds—against which we pushed back, like children always do. When we’re young, we think rebellion is the only path to freedom! Some amount of structure is important, but it is first-level growth. 

Authentic spirituality, as opposed to mere rebellion, is about finding true freedom. It offers us freedom from our smaller selves as a reference point for everything or anything. This is the necessary revolution wherein we change reference points. We discover that we are not the center of the universe any more than the Earth is. We no longer feel the need to place our own thoughts and feelings in the center of every conversation or difficulty.

The big and full world does not circle around any one of us. Yet so many refuse to undergo this foundational enlightenment, which leaves them much less free than they want to be.

Are you much less free than you want to be? Do you wish you could be more authentic and free, especially in the context of this faith community?

ShapeCourage, the original definition of courage, when it first came into the English language — it’s from the Latin word cor, meaning heart. So,  

Courage is telling the story of who you are with your whole heart.

That takes facing our fears of being known, letting others see not who we want them to see, but who we really are. It takes being vulnerable.

My Story

When I think about my own experience, I think becoming more authentic and free requires a mutual relationship. We can’t just become more authentic and free by ourselves. We need people we trust and a safe environment to let go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embrace who we are more fully.

I used to think I was a good mediator in conflict situations. And perhaps on some levels, I am because I am a good listener and I can hold space and empathize with many different perspectives. However, through kind and honest feedback, I realized I wasn’t a good mediator because while I could understand other people’s feelings and opinions very quickly, I was very slow to access my own feelings and opinions, especially in tense situations. In general, I’m more externally focused so I take a much longer time to process my own thoughts and feelings.

So one of the leaders shared with me that sometimes they find it hard to trust me when they don’t know what I’m thinking in a particular situation, especially when there is conflict or disagreements involved. I reflected about what that leader shared and I appreciated the honest insight because it’s true and I understand why that person said that.

So over the past few years, I’ve been working hard on accessing my own feelings and opinions, and articulating them more clearly and readily, usually at the beginning of a meeting or session so the people involved know where I stand and what I’m thinking. And people have told me they found it helpful so I’m grateful for this change.

So I have to let go of who I thought I was supposed to be and embrace myself for who I am, with my warts, limits and all.

ShapeVulnerability requires courage. What vulnerability is NOT:

Not over-sharing

Not sharing with every single person, regardless of the level of trust and safety

“Real authenticity actually requires major self-monitoring and isn’t the lack of self-monitoring. Authenticity requires vigilance and awareness about the connections between our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. It also means staying mindful about our intentions.”

Being authentic = being aligned (thoughts, emotions, behaviors, intentions)

Question 4 (Open)

What are some beliefs you need to let go about yourself in order to better embrace who you really are?

“Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are. Choosing authenticity means cultivating the courage to be imperfect, to set boundaries, and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable; exercising the compassion that comes from knowing that we are all made of strength and struggle; and nurturing the connection and sense of belonging that can only happen when we believe that we are enough.

Authenticity demands Wholehearted living and loving—even when it’s hard, even when we’re wrestling with the shame and fear of not being good enough, and especially when the joy is so intense that we’re afraid to let ourselves feel it. Mindfully practicing authenticity during our most soul-searching struggles is how we invite grace, joy, and gratitude into our lives.”

― Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are

For Our Community

Authenticity can’t be built just by you or me alone by ourselves. It requires a combined effort for us to create the right kind of environment for authenticity to thrive. Authenticity can only thrive when a group of people actively and intentionally cultivate a psychologically safe environment where people build trust and establish norms that allow each other to be imperfect, vulnerable, learning and growing—as individuals and as a team.

This applies to us as a faith community. Individually, we can work on letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embrace who we are. At the same time, we need to cultivate a safe environment for one another to do the same. That’s because authenticity and belonging go hand in hand.

“True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world…True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to BE who you are.” Brene Brown, Braving the Wilderness/Atlas of the Heart

Because we can feel belonging only if we have the courage to share our most authentic selves with people, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.

Focus Statement:

The more we are transformed in the likeness of Christ, the more we are able to be our authentic and free selves when we let go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embrace who we are, and we can help each other grow by creating a safer environment.

May God help us grow in the likeness of Christ as we nurture a safer environment that helps one another embrace our authentic selves more freely and fully. Amen.