Sermon: Shadow Dancing

This is the first sermon in our Lent series, “Shadow Dancing: Pulling Back the Veil.”

Matthew 4:1-11

I have a confession to make.  A few months ago, I became aware that the 20th anniversary of my tenure as pastor here was coming up. It felt important to me to mark that anniversary in some way, but I also knew that probably no one else in the congregation knew this anniversary was coming. So in a recent pastoral staff meeting, I kind of sheepishly said to Joanna and Pat that my 20th was coming and that I kind of wanted some acknowledgement of it. It didn’t have to be a big deal, I said — in fact, I didn’t want a big deal — but just some acknowledgement.

I was surprised at how hard it was for me to ask for this.  I felt this shame creeping up in me as I made the request. And I even felt the shame during the week before the celebration Sunday, as I heard little glimmers of what was going to happen and knew it was going to be quite a bigger deal than I had anticipated. 

Thankfully, I knew enough about that particular feeling of shame to know that it marked the presence of my shadow — that some part of myself that I had deemed inappropriate was presenting itself. I also knew this shame had something to do with messages I had internalized as a kid growing up in a conservative Amish Mennonite community: “Don’t bring attention to yourself. Don’t be prideful. It is shameful to want to be seen and celebrated.” When I was adult, my Mom told me that her one regret as a mother was that she didn’t compliment us as children. She had also internalized my community’s message that pride was the deadliest of all the sins, and so you had to guard diligently against the formation of pride in yourself and in your children. 

When she first confessed this to me, I didn’t think this had really affected me much as a kid, but later I realized it had. If I had gotten elected as class secretary or to the Student Council in high school, I’d never tell my Mom. She’d have to read about it in the little local paper that actually published such information. She was perplexed as to why I didn’t tell her and, honestly, I was also. It wasn’t until my late 30s, that I realized I didn’t tell her these things because I knew she wouldn’t congratulate me for them. She wouldn’t say, “Sheri, your peers must think highly of you. I’m proud of you.” She’d be silent. So, I protected myself against that disappointment by not mentioning it to her and also by repressing that desire to be celebrated and congratulated. 

Now, this was not done consciously. I want to emphasize that because it’s important to understanding how shadow is formed. These “inappropriate” desires and impulses are often repressed unconsciously, and I was well into adulthood before I became conscious of this shadow dynamic in me. Even two weeks ago, I was surprised that that particular shadow was still present within me.

What is the shadow and how does it get formed? The poet Robert Bly writes: “Behind us, we have an invisible bag and the part of ourselves our parents don’t like we — to keep our parents’ love — put in the bag. Then we do a lot of stuffing in high school. We spend our life until we’re 20 deciding what part of ourself to put in the bag and we spend the rest of our lives trying to get (those parts) out again.” (From his book A Little Book on the Human Shadow.) So, as a way of staying safe and staying acceptable t our parents and other authority figures and our peers, we take those unacceptable parts of ourselves and stuff them into the shadow bag and forget about them. 

And yet often these unacceptable parts may contain the “gold” of our personality — traits or gifts that are beautiful and bright but that we disown because of cultural messages.  Maybe we acted boldly, playfully, spontaneously in our first-grade classroom. And maybe our teacher shamed us for our lack of decorum in front of the class and told us to sit down. (This example comes from this helpful guide.) So the bigness of our personality, our bold playfulness got stuffed in the bag. Maybe you were a boy — and especially if you were a cisgender, straight boy — and you loved to dance or do musical theater. But then you got messages that it’s not cool for boys to want to be into those things, messages that emerge from our collective shadows of homophobia and patriarchy. Into the bag goes that desire, those talents. 

In high school, I internalized social messages around what a girl could and should do —  what she could and should be — what was attractive and what wasn’t — what was popular and what wasn’t —  and those parts of me that didn’t conform to those messages  — got (make movement) stuffed in the bag.  What did you stuff in your bag? I had a Mennonite friend, raised in the Midwest, who did a whole performance piece on those parts of ourself she put in the shadow growing up. It was called “Angry, Sexy, Goofy.” ‘

Therapist and author Robert Johnson says: “We are all born whole and, let us hope, will die whole. But somewhere early on our way, we eat one of the.. fruits of the tree of knowledge, things separate into good and evil, and we begin the shadow-making process: we divide our lives. In the cultural process, we sort out our God-given characteristics into those that are acceptable to society and those that have to be put way… But the refused and unacceptable characteristics do not go away; they only collect in the dark corners of our personality. When they have been hidden long enough, they take on a life of their own — the shadow life.”  (From his book Owning your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche)

That’s the problem with not owning our shadow. The disowned parts eventually show up, unannounced, unanticipated. They often act out. Have you ever said something rather cutting or unkind and immediately said, “I didn’t mean that!” But, some part of you did mean it or you wouldn’t have said it. That was likely your shadow speaking. Our shadow often shows up in big feelings, in big energies. “What do you absolutely hate in other people? What gets your goat? What irritates you strongly or irrationally or what disgusts you?” Only the shadow knows. One of the surest ways of catching a glimpse of our shadow is by noticing when someone really drives us crazy. That’s almost a sure tip off that you’re projecting something of your own shadow onto someone else. A therapist on a podcast I enjoy listening to tells a great story of her own shadow and how it showed up for her through projection onto a co-worker who drove her nuts: (21:25-23:35)  That’s Lisa Marciano and then Deborah Stewart at the end.

We project our shadows onto other people a lot. It happens within marriages and intimate partnerships, it happens in friendships, in families, in church communities. It’s a very human thing to do. We can’t help but do it. But doing it unconsciously can be very unhealthy for relationships and communities. Relationships and communities can be torn apart by these shadow projections. I think this is what Jesus was talking about in Matthew 7 when he teaches: ““Do not judge, so that you may not be judged…Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”

What I hear Jesus saying here is: Yes, maybe that person does actually have a speck in their eye — they may really be a show off! — but your outsized reaction to them indicates the presence of a log in your own. Get clear about your own shadow, get clear about what you are projecting onto other people. Stop blaming or judging them and look at yourself. And then, once you are conscious of this shadow quality in yourself, you will more clearly be able to see the other person’s speck — their actual character flaw or place for growth. But when you’re projecting the big energy of your own shadow onto someone else, you are not seeing them nor yourself clearly because you have a big old log in your eye.

Truly, most of my spiritual growth has come from becoming conscious of my shadow. I have learned to be thankful (more or less) for those big reactions when they come up and those (growl) people that catch my shadow projections because they are like arrow signs on the highway  pointing the way to some shadow I need to look at.  In the week before my celebration, that shame was so helpful to me. I was able to tend my shadow self, the young girl in me that still thought it inappropriate and shameful to want acknowledgement. I took care of her, like a mother would. I said: “I know you’re uncomfortable. But it’s going to be alright. And it’s OK for you to have this.” I also talked with Pat, and she was really helpful in easing my shadow shame. And so on the day of the celebration, I was able to just be present and absorb the love instead of subtly resisting it. And I was also able to truly give love.

It’s very intriguing to me that Jesus begins his ministry by going into the wilderness and being tempted by the devil, which I believe often represents the shadow in Scripture. Not only the personal shadow but — often — the collective shadow of a community or nation. In fact, the story seems to suggest that Jesus has to do this shadow work before he can begin his ministry. The story explicitly says that it’s the Spirit that led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Jesus has to face not only his personal shadow but also, I believe, the collective shadow of his people, who have been occupied by the Roman Empire. What oppressed people does not want to gain the power over, the dominating power that their oppressors have? How popular — how powerful — could Jesus be if he could (snap fingers) make bread from stones? The Roman Empire of that day bought the allegiance of some of its subjects by giving them free grain for their daily bread. How popular – how powerful – could Jesus be if he defied death by hurling himself off the Temple in Jerusalem and surviving? Roman Emperors were often seen as being able to defy death again and again in battle.  Finally, the devil just says it straight out: I will give you all the kingdoms of the world. You will be the Emperor! You will be in charge! Jesus faces these shadows and from them, I think, learns that in himself he has a shadow dominator, a shadow emperor. And he consciously makes a different choice. He chooses, instead, the egalitarian and humble and “mustard seed” Kindom of God. 

Facing our personal and collective shadows is a process of purification. It is a process of healing. And we do this shadow dancing, this dancing in the dark, knowing that we are the beloved children of God. In all of the Gospel accounts, the thing that happens right before Jesus goes into the wilderness to face his shadow is his baptism, when the heavens break open and the light of God’s love falls on him and he hears the voice saying: “This is my beloved One, in whom I am well pleased.” As Richard Rohr says, “Only Divine Light (and Divine Love) gives us permission, freedom, and courage to go all the way down into our depths and meet our shadow.” May the light of that Love be with us throughout our Lenten journey. Amen.