Our Authentic Selves (part one): Tales of Two Favored Sons
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I would imagine that everybody in the room today has watched one if not many Billy Graham Crusades. There were many reasons to watch Billy Graham, not all of which were theological or spiritual. Some of it was simply good entertainment. Some of the great performers in American theater and song sang at his Crusades. Some of you know that I used to watch the Crusades when I was a little boy just so I could hear Ethel Waters sing--hopefully “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” I turned off the television after Ethel sung because in those days about the only thing Billy preached on when was the end of time, heaven and hell and such. And I didn't want to lose a night's sleep in fear of hell. Thankfully, Billy Graham evolved in regard to the content of his sermons.
Certainly one of the songs made famous by the Billy Graham Crusade was the perpetual altar call hymn, “Just as I Am.” I doubt anyone ever counted how many thousands of times that song was sung around the world after his sermons finished, during which time people who wanted to make decisions about their faith would come forward into the altar area. The song, “Just As I Am,” has many stanzas, and often in the Crusades the song would be sung in its entirety several times. It could go on forever.
If you ever had even in a trace of evangelicalism in your system you probably sung that hymn at some point and maybe on occasion pondered its meaning. In a largely judgmental environment, which evangelistic preaching typically is, the song, “Just As I Am,” has a bit of grace. Even when I can’t clean it up or put a nice face on it, God still loves me.
Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind;
Sight, riches, healing of the mind;
Yes, all I need, in Thee to find,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!
Just as I am, Thou wilt receive,
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
Because Thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!
Just as I am, Thy love unknown
Has broken every barrier down;
Now, to be Thine, yea, Thine alone,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come!
I am concerned today with the importance of owning our true selves in our inner depths where no one knows us except ourselves, but also being who we really are in relationship to other people. There are two extremes, I am thinking, when it comes to what we may have to own about ourselves.
If we live in a context of low expectation, if there is an ideal of substandard-achievement prevailing in the group to which we most identify--whether family or clique or culture--and we have found in ourselves the drive to break the cycle, saying who we are in terms of achievement and success may well meet with disapproval and disdain both from peers who are, for whatever reason, tied to the low expectation status quo AND from the larger society that has expected people in my group to remain low-achieving. And yet, eventually we have to say who we are if we have broken out or intend to.
On the other end of the continuum is the scenario of saying who we are when we are at a place in life about which we are not proud--both when we are justifiably not proud and when we are not proud because we have bought into the negativity to which influential others have assigned the place at which we find ourselves in life, which may have no moral offense whatsoever attached to it. Alcoholism is no moral failure, and there’s a huge difference between an alcoholic and a drunk. Still, plenty of people who get themselves to an AA meeting for the first time are pained, though somehow relieved, to hear themselves say for the first time, “I’m Jackie, and I’m an alcoholic.” Part of what we hope happens when we own who we are at our less than lovely points in life is the release of shame that has been attached to our plight.
I want to pull together for our pondering today the tales of two favored sons, each of whom had to say who he was from each of the perspectives I’ve just described. And my reason for heading in this direction today is to applaud those of you who have taken risks of saying who you are and to encourage those of you on your journey toward embracing privately and publicly your authentic selves.
Many of you will know at least parts of the Joseph story. If nothing else, you probably know about Joseph’s coat of many colors; if you didn't stumble across that story because of Bible reading you probably picked it up from Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber. In any case, Joseph's coat was not woven into a finished multi-colored garment. The important part of the story is not that Joseph had a very colorful tunic or toga while his eleven brothers had more mundane wear. The point was that in a family with twelve sons most of the sons had demanding outdoor responsibilities, but for some reason father Jacob determined that Joseph needed special attention and opportunity, shall we say. So he had a tunic made for Joseph with long sleeves, an indication that Joseph was not to do outdoor work.
This created the most unhealthy tension between the outdoor working brothers and the indoor son, Joseph. The sibling rivalry became so intense and so toxic that some of the brothers actually began talking about killing Joseph and being done with him, having him out of their sight. Joseph interpreted his dreams in such a way that message: Joseph is the superior son, and the other sons should or will one day bow down before him. You can imagine that such dreams interpretation didn’t help how his jealous brothers looked at him.
Cooler heads prevailed among the brothers, and they didn’t they didn’t out and out murder him; what they did to him was about as bad as fratricide as far as they knew and certainly as far as he knew. They sold him into slavery. They took his long sleeve tunic and put the blood of a wild animal on it, showed it to their father Jacob, and told him that despite their heroic efforts to ward off the wild animal it prevailed; Joseph was dead.
Joseph had been written off by most of his brothers, ten of the other eleven, as something to be thrown out like trash, as something to be sold like a piece of property, a kind of human trafficking commodity. Joseph had years and years to think about what had happened to him and the way the separation from his father and other members of the family members who did love him had been forced upon him with no involvement of his own. It appears that an everyday person back in those days at a great distance from home could not get a message to home unless by chance someone familiar with home happened to come through one's new locale. This meant that once Joseph had been taken into slavery in Egypt, there was no further communication with his family for years and years and years.
A dreadful famine fell upon Canaan, and even well-to-do families were affected because there was no food to buy at whatever price. The word circulated that Egypt where Joseph had been taken into slavery, he had risen to great heights of power--from slave to vizier, the second most powerful person in Egypt answering only to the pharaoh. His family had no idea this had happened to Joseph because communication had ceased.
When the brothers get to Egypt where surplus Egyptian grain was being sold, they are taken to the office of none other than the vizier! They were escorted into their brother’s office where international business transactions were handled. And there is Joseph, dressed in the attire of his office. He looks nothing like he looked the last time the brothers saw him being sold off into slavery. The brothers are in this desperate situation to bring food back to the family, and they have no idea into whose presence they have come. Joseph, however, knows them.
Brothers will be brothers. There was no way Joseph could simply forget about all the harm that had come to him because of his brothers’ jealousy and frustration. For fun and retaliation, which for some people are one and the same, he accuses them of being spies and has them thrown into prison. Then he pretends to have reconsidered, and he says he will keep one of the brothers in prison while the others take some grain home, promising to return with the youngest brother, Benjamin in tow, at which point Simeon will be released from prison. That’s what happened.
Joseph could easily have kept his identity permanently hidden from his brothers the ones who have hurt him, but after Joseph had put them through the frustration and anxiety of jumping through hoops to get grain, he tells them who he really is; and though he is a powerful person by that time, this did not mean the brothers would ever accept him as anything more than an uppity--too big for his tunic, as it were.
He told them though. “You may hate me for not being where you are in life, where you thought I should be too; but this is who I am. I had the opportunity to become more than I thought I ever could, and I took it.” This is the revelation of authentic self on the end of success. I saw the other day some place where Bette Midler said the problem with success is finding somebody who is happy for you.
Did Joseph gloat? Well of course he did, and he thoroughly enjoyed it; but he got the family what they needed for survival and more. Then he went on with being the person he had become through challenge upon challenge.
There are those who hide themselves from those closest to them not because of success but because of failure--or at least perceived failure. They can't bear to show themselves to those to whom they had once related very closely. There's too much possibility for pain--particularly rejection. This is the theme of one of Jesus’ most famous parables--the parable of the lost son, sometimes called the prodigal son. German theologian, Helmut Thielicke, named the parable “The Waiting Father” because he believed the core truth in the parable rested on the father's way responding to the son who hurt him so deeply.
No detailed retelling of the familiar story today but a reminder that the father had two sons on whom he relied greatly. One was loyal and attentive to their father, and the other from all indications was entirely egocentric. He asked his father while the father was still living to go ahead and give him the percentage of his future inheritance set aside for a second son. In sadness, the father did what his younger son asked him to do. (It is obviously a story told in a culture that knew nothing about the expenses of independent living and assisted living and long term nursing care and the stipulations of Medicaid, which leaves most parents penniless in terms of what they would like to have left to their offspring.)
Big stash of cash in hand, the younger son went out on his merry way leaving the father and brother to manage everything back at home. No worries, baby!
It wasn’t until the younger son was out of money entirely and doing a job he was certain should have been beneath him that he thought owning his true identity was his only chance at survival physically perhaps and emotionally without a doubt. Said another way, it is only when he is at his lowest point in life that he came back to his long-suffering father and attempted to reconnect, which required of him an owning of who he was or who he had become at that moment in time. In desperation he owns who he has become to his father--certain that the father might take him back as a servant but never again as a son. He was wrong about that, but until he embraced his authentic self he could never have known.
Tales of two favored sons. Any similarities in their stories? I think so.
- Neither brother was first born. In both ancient cultures in which these stories are set firstborn sons were supposed to have had an edge over the other sons just because of birth order. If there were a favorite son it should have been the first born. So in both stories something is unsettling for first hearers because the firstborn son wasn’t getting what societies said he deserved. The earlier birth order sons felt snubbed.
- In both cases the sons on which we focus today didn't feel fully part of the context in which they grew up. Maybe they felt like outsiders, which is the case for a large number of people who are dealing with trying to claim their authentic selves. Maybe they disliked or feared the roles that had been assigned to them by their families and and societies. Joseph was torn away from his family, but the Lost Son left home maybe not to be a hellion at all. Maybe he had to get away from home to find himself.
The time came for both of these favorite sons when in order to be connected to the people they most loved, their families, they had to risk owning their true identity. In completely different circumstances, each son had to say who he was at a critical moment to a family from whom they had been separated for an extended time. Had they waited they might never have scraped the courage together again.
In my family therapy training, I was introduced to Virginia Satir, one of the most well known social workers and family therapists of the twentieth century. I have since having read it for the first time been continually strengthened by her declaration of OKness.
I am Me. In all the world, there is no one else exactly like me. Everything that comes out of me is authentically mine, because I alone chose it -- I own everything about me: my body, my feelings, my mouth, my voice, all my actions, whether they be to others or myself. I own my fantasies, my dreams, my hopes, my fears. I own my triumphs and successes, all my failures and mistakes. Because I own all of me, I can become intimately acquainted with me. By so doing, I can love me and be friendly with all my parts. I know there are aspects about myself that puzzle me, and other aspects that I do not know -- but as long as I am friendly and loving to myself, I can courageously and hopefully look for solutions to the puzzles and ways to find out more about me. However I look and sound, whatever I say and do, and whatever I think and feel at a given moment in time is authentically me. If later some parts of how I looked, sounded, thought, and felt turn out to be unfitting, I can discard that which is unfitting, keep the rest, and invent something new for that which I discarded. I can see, hear, feel, think, say, and do. I have the tools to survive, to be close to others, to be productive, and to make sense and order out of the world of people and things outside of me. I own me, and therefore, I can engineer me. I am me, and I am Okay.