My sermon from 2019 about unconditional love. Time to revisit this!
I recently watched the movie Boy Erased based on the memoir of Garrard Conleys. It’s a very intense movie which described a true Christian Gay Conversion therapy program in the 1980s and 90s in Memphis Tennessee. It was called Love in Action. Most of the young people who went there were forced to go by their very religious parents. It was an abusive program where the participants were belittled, yelled at, and harassed. Every day they heard real voices telling them they were sick, they were going to go to hell, God didn’t love them the way they were, and much worse. It was not easy for them to voluntarily leave the program. Several people died by their own hands rather than continue in the program.
The movie saddened me, but did not surprise me or shock me. What caught my attention was the two lines at the end of the movie that told us that the main leader of the center, John Smid, had resigned, left the conversion therapy movement and was now living with his husband in Texas. I was curious about him and how that transition happened, so I did some research.
I learned that he had been gay, had two marriages to women, and got involved in the movement because he was trying to stay straight. He was the leader for over 20 years. How did he get out? How did he come out again?
This question is the heart of the Rosh Hashanah journey. How will we change and evolve and ultimately work with forgiveness this year? The story goes that there were protestors who stood outside of the program for eight weeks chanting, “We love you just the way you are!” Although we might think they were trying to support the participants, Smid said that even when he arrived in the morning, they would address him, the head of this program, the abuser, with the same language, “We love you just the way you are.” They may have also added, “God loves you just the way you are.” It took him weeks, but he finally heard their message. He realized in that moment that God’s voice was coming through to him and it was time for him to accept himself. After participating in the harm of so many young people, including those who died because they weren’t allowed to love themselves, he heard God’s voice and got out. He came out. Because of the protestors consistent message of love, he was able to change his self-talk that by being gay he was succumbing to the devil, into self-talk that he was loved by God just the way he was.
Hopefully our lives are not that extreme. Hopefully we aren’t waiting for an epiphany like that to quiet our self-talk.
However, in my years as a Spiritual Director, Rabbi and Chaplain I’ve heard a lot of very harmful self-talk and it saddens me. “I’m not smart enough, it’s my fault I got cancer, it’s my fault my daughter got cancer, I don’t do enough to save the world, I don’t do enough to contribute to my community, I’m a bad mother, I’m a bad spouse, I’m a bad daughter, I’m a bad friend, I’m a bad person. I’m ugly, I’m not lovable, I hate my nose, I hate my body, I hate my culture, I hate my life.” How can we expect to engage in a meaningful life when there’s a voice yelling at us all the time and the voice is ours?
It is Rosh Hashanah, and we are looking at our lives, our connection with the Source of All Creation and Love, and we probably are aware of some of the self-talk that is hard to quiet. I suppose the one up side of these repetitive accusations is that we are already very experienced mantra meditators. If we can only learn to change the words that we repeat to ourselves daily, hourly, perhaps we can find a path to kindness and greater participation in our lives. Perhaps we can find a glimpse of a fresh start this year.
Rabbi Naomi Levy in her book Einstein and the Rabbi teaches a beautiful approach to help us calm the negative voices yelling at us from within, using one Hebrew word. Chusah. Let’s say it out-loud together. Chusah. It makes a sound like waves crashing against the shore. There’s a whoosh to the word, a feeling of cleansing. Rabbi Levy interprets CHUSAH this way: It’s not pity, not mercy, not just compassion. Chusah is the special kind of love that an artist has for her own creation, even when it’s imperfect. It’s a compassion for somethings that’s flawed. Chusah involves the absence of judgment. The prayer, Haneshama Lach pleads God to have compassion and tenderness for the soul and the body that God created. We plead with God to have compassion on us no matter our flaws.
Chusah is the way we love our children even though they are messy and unique. Their uniqueness makes them even more beautiful. Chusah is the way we love their artwork and put it on our walls even when it is a mere scribble on paper.
Chusah, is the voice of the soul that says, “Try again, it’s okay, you are precious”.
So instead of the litany of self- talk that speaks like a judge, we can let our compassionate soul fill us with unconditional love using the word Chusah. Chusah doesn’t mean denial. It means that with kinder eyes we give ourselves permission to look at ourselves without cringing and without hate, so that we can actually see what’s there, what needs fixing. So we can face what we resist. The soul’s voice says, “I don’t need to only take stock of my failings, I need to take stock of my strengths. I need to know what I’ve been blessed with so I can understand what I have to work with.”
Chusah can also teach us to soften the judgments we place on others, loved ones, colleagues, and absolute strangers too. There are accusations we hold against people who harmed us in the past. There are snap judgments we make about people we don’t even know based on nothing but their appearance or a single bad encounter. We label people at work, people in our communities, and people in our families. We place them in a box, “immature, lazy, annoying, stupid, ugly”. We rarely take the time to reassess the sentences we’ve passed against them. By doing this, we put ourselves in the box, isolating ourselves from others.
Rabbi Levy teaches that it is deceptively simple to work with the word Chusah for a healing purpose. Tonight we will play with this word for just a minute. Let us sit quietly. Let the word Chusah float inside you. Don’t say the word aloud. Let it roll around inside your mind and throughout your limbs. You can imagine you swallowed the word like a painkiller, and soon it is relieving the pain wherever you hurt. Just let the word do what it needs to do. Don’t worry if you lose the word for awhile. Just return to repeating it in your mind. Take it lightly, don’t try to push or to stress over it. Let it dance inside you like a flickering flame, illuminating you from within.
IF you found meaning in this practice, I invite you to do it for 5 minutes and then stretch it to more and more until you reach 18 minutes of unconditional love. Day by day, the word Chusah begins softening our judgments, melting our barriers.
It allows us to look upon others with a more forgiving eye. We begin to look upon ourselves with a more forgiving eye.
The protestors outside of the Love in Action program were like the word Chusah washing through John Smid every day until he could feel it throughout his body and soul. He internalized what the protestors were saying to him, that he is worthy of love, even God’s love, just the way he is. At the same time, he knew that all the people in the program were similarly worthy of love just the way they were. This deep knowledge allowed him to step back, see all the harm his program had done, accept responsibility for his part, and then move forward to do right by shutting down the program and take steps to make repairs. And then there was the aftermath. How did John Smid face himself in his part of causing serious harm, even death? I can’t imagine what it was like for those who suffered because of the program. I also know that John Smid had to live his life knowing how much he caused the longtime suffering of others. Smid said it was really hard to live with what he had done.
When I hear his story, I see how important the concept of him knowing we are all worthy of love was the catalyst for change. However, using the tools of teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah may have helped him begin to repair the harm he caused. For example, he attempted teshuvah by shutting down the program and by making public apologies. He invited people who had been harmed by the program to speak with him directly so he could do whatever repair work was possible.
He also said that sometimes he had to live in denial because otherwise he might not be able to live with the heart break. Denial as a coping strategy, when used in small doses can be very effective to help us manage otherwise overwhelming matter. Our heart can’t survive in a constant state of brokeness. This is also where tefillah/prayer could come in. Sometimes the only place to take our heartbreak is to tefillah. By accepting our heartbreak and expressing it, sometimes the heartbreak softens.
I don’t know if John Smid donated any money to any pro-gay or other causes, but that was and still is an option for him. Tzedakkah doesn’t fix the harm, but it acknowledges that repair is needed and can soften the long- term effect of what happened.
Could he forgive himself? Could he forgive the forces that put him in the closet in the first place? I don’t know, but I do know the protestors, the voices of love without judgment, the voice of Chusah, was key to his “recovery” from negative self- talk, and key to stopping the harm he had participated in. Hopefully it was also the beginning of a process of forgiveness.
On this Erev Rosh Hashanah, I invite us to feel wrapped in the power of Chusah, love without judgment. I invite us to allow our tools of teshuvah/tefillah and tzedakah to help us begin to transform and repair that which is sorely in need of repair. I invite us to soften, soften, soften, towards ourselves and each other.
And let us say Amen,