Dear Hyde Park Family,
When I read James 2 in preparation for this Sunday’s sermon, in which James tells us to show no favoritism based on people’s outward appearance, I immediately thought about Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling.”
You know the story. Our little hero goes on a soul-searching journey, enduring merciless teasing by the other ducklings and an elder chief-duck, and several near-death experiences. Then, with no hope for companionship, the ugly duckling spots some graceful swans flying overhead. With no idea that he is in fact one of them, he charges skyward. And after seeing his reflection, he realizes his true identity.
That’s the end of the story, right?
Well, there’s more.
It turns out the original punchline from Hans Christian Anderson comes after his dramatic realization, as he was praised by all the other animals for being younger and more beautiful than all the other swans. The sudden shift from his own self-debasement to adulation by his peers was too much for him to handle. He didn’t know how to reconcile the two. “Then he felt quite ashamed, and hid his head under his wing; for he did not know what to do, Anderson writes. “He was happy, and yet not at all proud.”
As much as there can be truth found in a fairy tale, here is the valuable lesson for all of us: View yourself with a balanced perspective.
I’m reminded of Paul’s letter to the Romans: “I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” (Romans 12:3)
It’s as if Paul read “The Ugly Duckling” before writing his epistle. Don’t think of yourself too lowly, but don’t consider yourself too highly either. Don’t vacillate between low self-esteem and chest-thumping pride. Instead, consider yourself with “sober judgment”: balance, sound scrutiny and a realistic perspective.
If you want some practical tips on how to think of yourself that way, here is a quick, four-fold piece of guidance. Keep in mind, you can’t pick and choose; you need to keep all four of these statements in harmony with each other:
- You are never quite as bad as people say you are. It doesn’t matter what people may say about you, or even do to you. You are not defined by people’s insults, barbs or personal attacks. Your life has value independent of what other people may think, and you are never quite as bad as what others say.
- You are never quite as good as you think you are. Lest you swing the pendulum too far the other way, guard yourself against boasting. You know quite well that you always have room for improvement in your life and you should never feel completely settled in the way you think, act and relate to others. You are a work in progress, so be open to the Spirit’s constant work within you.
- You are never quite as good as people say you are. I know, this is a tough one. For those of us – myself especially included – who crave external affirmation, we should find a solid foundation of humility upon which to base our lives. Nothing steers us away from real, authentic living quite like pretension, solely designed to look good in front of others. Wean yourself off the need for public praise.
- You are never quite as bad as you think you are. I’ll admit: this is the toughest one for me. It’s one thing to understand the concept of grace and even to define it with precise theological language. It’s quite another to live into it, accept it and allow it to flow in my life. I suspect that may be the case for you. But God loves you for who you are. And this may sound like a trite, overwrought cliché, but don’t ignore its truth: God did not make a mistake when God created you. You may feel like an ugly duckling, but there is royalty within you: nothing less than the very image of Christ, waiting to shine through.
In the end, Hans Christian Anderson’s story does have a very happy ending. And so it will be for you, if you view yourself with balance and “sober judgment:”
Then he rustled his feathers, curved his slender neck, and cried joyfully, from the depths of his heart, “I never dreamed of such happiness as this, while I was an ugly duckling.”
Grace and Peace,
The Rev. Magrey deVega
Senior Pastor, Hyde Park United Methodist