Friday, February 27, 2015


On his way to the cross, Jesus said,
            taught us to deny ourselves,
            because anyone who wants to save his life loses it,
            but those who lose their lives for (Jesus’) sake find them.”
Tricky language.

How do we go about denying ourselves?
Does that mean depriving ourselves of happiness?
To those of us who have read self-help books
            that prescribe pampering ourselves, standing up for ourselves,
                        and discovering ourselves,
            it doesn’t sound all that healthy to deny ourselves.
So is Jesus saying anything we can even consider? Maybe so.

The expression “self-denial” has gotten a bit twisted.
A lot of what passes for self-denial isn’t so healthy,
            but it isn’t really self-denial either.
When someone goes around abstaining from this and abstaining from that,
            it can have a bit of spiritual pride in it.

That sort of thing is to self-denial as iron pyrite is to gold.
It’s shiny, but not the real deal.
Too much bad religion amounts to denying myself a material pleasure
            in the hope of getting a spiritual reward.
A religion driven by staying out of hell
            or winning a ticket to heaven is still self-centered.

That kind of religion just replaces material self-centeredness
            with spiritual self-centeredness.
A spirituality that is all about achieving a placid state of mind
            is still spiritual self-centeredness.
It’s another ego-project.
Frankly the material self-centeredness was more honest.

So what is this self-denial Jesus is talking about?
How can we find our lives by losing our lives?
Let’s start with the words Jesus used.

He didn’t say to abstain from anything.
Abstaining from things may be a good idea.
But that’s not what self-denial means.

He said deny yourself.
The word we translate as “deny” means “renounce the claims.”
Renounce the claims of your self-interest.
One of our best New Testament scholars, Eduard Schweitzer,
            translates this verse, “he must forget himself.”//

In other words, stop fretting over yourself.
Stop making yourself so important.
Stop trying to advance your self-interest,
            because that is not your life.
That is not living.
It’s a waste of your precious years
            and it will not make you happy.

St. Augustine said, “I have become a great problem to myself.”
I know what he means, and maybe you do too.
I have my share of problems of course.
But even when things are going better than par
            by anyone’s standards,
            my mind spins out complications.
I still manage to tangle the lines of my relationships.
And the harder I work at making myself happy,
            the more frustrated and anxious I become.

It is a dreadful thing to be self-obsessed.
In my case, I’m not even that interesting.
It’s like being addicted to a bad sit-com
            and watching re-runs.

Modern culture promises  freedom
            but it has double crossed us.
It liberated us from a lot of things.
It liberated us from political tyranny, religious straightjackets,
            obligations to extended families, and duties to uphold tradition.
But all that liberation did not set us free.
It delivered us into hands of the harshest taskmaster of all
            – the self: the constant demands of our insatiable self-interest.
We work so hard at making ourselves successful and secure,
            we don’t see the sunrise, feel the air on our face,
                        or even taste our food.
And so we lose our lives by trying too hard to find them.
How do we get out of this?
It is tricky,
            because if I set out to forget myself for my own sake,
                        the contradiction ties the knot even tighter.

Two stories from my days as a parish priest
            – one dramatic, one small.
The dramatic one first.
My parishioner, Carol, lost her 20-year-old daughter
            in the crash of TWA 800.
Her purpose for living was not at all clear after that.
She was absorbed in her grief.

I don’t mean this as a criticism.
Her response was absolutely natural and to be expected.
But being absorbed in one’s grief is a form of being absorbed in oneself.
It is the most miserable self-trap.

Then, Joanne, another woman in the congregation
            became terminally ill,
            and she had no family to care for her.
So Carol and a few others took charge of her care.
Carol had to set her grief aside to care for a dying friend.
She says today that Joanne saved her life.

“Those who lose their life for my sake, find it.”
Carol lost her life defined as grief to find a new life
            defined as service.

Now the not so dramatic story, the small one.
Norma, another of my church members,
            fell into a depression.
She was weighed down by it, miserable,
            obsessed with all that was missing in her life.
Mired in despondency, she still managed
            to buy groceries for the week,
            and as she was in the checkout line,
                        the cahier gave her a rose.
And in that instant, she forgot herself.
The beauty of the rose
            and the beauty of the act of giving her the rose
                        filled her with delight.
That is the essence of Christian spirituality.
Grace means a stranger handing you a rose on a bad day.

These two stories are examples of the two ways
            of liberation from self.
The two ways are compassion and delight.
We have all had glimpses of them.
We encounter something beautiful or holy,
            or someone whose fragility or need touches our hearts,
And we forget ourselves.

The beauty of nature or art or music captivates us
            and for a moment, at least, we forget ourselves.
That’s delight.
Someone needs us to visit them in the hospital,        
            bring them a meal
                        or just drop our plans and listen to them.
So we put our ego-projects on the shelf for awhile
            and give a little piece of our lives to someone else.
That’s compassion.
Either way, we come more fully alive.
We get these glimpses of grace now and then.
To fully and finally forget ourselves,
            our attention will have to be captured by something
            powerfully – even ultimately – engaging.
Something awesome enough, beautiful enough,
            fascinating and delightful enough,
                        to make us want to gaze upon it forever.
That would be God.

“How lovely is thy dwelling place,” the Psalmist sang.
“How late I came to love Thee O Beauty, so ancient and so new!”
            St. Augustine prayed in the 5th Century.
In the 6th Century, Dionysius said that God is “infinitely beautiful,
            the splendor that draws all things into itself.”
We can lose ourselves in the contemplation of that splendor.

Two movements of the Spirit set us free.
They are compassion and delight.
In compassion and delight, we forget ourselves
            and step into a larger reality.
Compassion and delight are, of course,
            the left and right hands of love.
Loving the world, loving other people,
            is how we forget ourselves and follow Jesus.
There is a cross in our path.
It is the cross of self-forgetting, which is a kind of dying.
But it is also the way to life itself.

Friday, February 20, 2015


In the desert Jesus faced the same issue
            that confronted the King of Uruk 2,800 years before.
His story is The Epic of Gilgamesh.
There are different versions of that story.
This is one.

Gilgamesh, the young king of Uruk, was a superman
             – the greatest athlete, the greatest lover,
                        the greatest warrior – too busy being a superman
                        to pay attention to his people.
He best friend, Enkido, was another superman
            and they had super adventures together        
                        until Enkido fell ill and died.
Up to now Gilgamesh thought death was for ordinary people.
But if Enkido could die, then he too was mortal.
So Gilgamesh went on a quest to find the way to immortality.

He tried going back to nature and living like a wild animal,
            but that turned out to be a subhuman life not worth living.
He tried hedonism. Eat, drink, and be merry.
If you live life with enough gusto it will go on forever.
But that just gave him a hangover.
So he crossed an ocean to find a spiritual master
            seeking a religion to escape death.
But religion proved to be just beyond his capacity.
All his efforts to escape the common lot of humankind failed.

So he got back in his boat and went home.
As he arrived at the shore of his kingdom,
            he looked up and saw his city.
The story ends with his words, “Lo the walls of Uruk.”

Gilgamesh, a mortal man, went back to his mortal people
            and took up the task of caring for them.
He repented of his narcissism
            and became a responsible member of the human race.

Last Wednesday, many of us had crosses traced in ashes
            upon our foreheads and were told in somber tones
            that we are dust and to dust we shall return.

In his classic book, The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker wrote,
            “The idea of death . . . haunts the human animal
            like nothing else.”
Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm said we suffer from this fear
            because of all creation we alone are caught in the existential paradox.
We are spiritual beings, capable of reflection,
            interpretation, and aspiration.
We treasure the spiritual realm like angels.
But we are nonetheless animals who die like animals.

The paradox is there in the 82nd Psalm,
            “You are Gods. You are sons of the Most High.
             But you will die like mere men.”
And Psalm 49:
            “No man can redeem the life of another or ransom his own life
                        . . . . Man, despite his riches does not endure
                        but he is like the beasts that perish.”
Because we are spiritual, we do not feel that we should be mortal.
But we are – and nothing can change that hard fact.
Our Christian faith ultimately answers death with resurrection
            to a new and better life.
But that does not happen until we have lost this life
            which is so rightly precious to us.
We don’t get to Easter without walking the Lenten way
            all the way through Good Friday.

If we feel spiritual, Jesus was more so.
He learned at the Jordan River that he was the Son of God.
But what did that mean?
He went to the desert to find out.
And Satan had some answers.

The desert told Jesus that he was still a mortal animal.
The sun did not spare his skin.
He was hungry and thirsty as anyone would be.
The desert did not care that he was mortal.

Then along came Satan inviting him to escape
            from the common lot of humanity.
Along came Satan offering material sustenance and comfort.
Along came Satan offering protection from the death dealing
            power of the nature’s laws.
“Jump off the temple. You will not die. Just claim your divine status.”
Along came Satan offering world dominion.
Surely if we can gather enough power, it will make us immortal.
Satan introduced each of the temptations with “if you are the Son of God.”
He said anyone as spiritual as Jesus ought to be exempt
            from the fate of ordinary people.

But Jesus said no to all the temptations.
Gilgamesh had already tried all of those things
            and knew they didn’t work.
Maybe Jesus had read Gilgamesh. We don’t know.
But Jesus didn’t escape his humanity by being the Son of God.
Instead, like Gilgamesh going home to Uruk,
            Jesus went home to Galilee.
There, he didn’t call himself “the Son of God.”
He called himself “the Son of Man”
            to claim his humanity, his brotherhood with us.

Being mortal together is a profound connection.
Poet laureate Ted Kooser wrote in his poem “Mourners,”
                        After the funeral, the mourners gather
                        under the rustling churchyard maples
                        and talk softly, . . . .
                        They came this afternoon to say goodbye,
                        but now they keep saying hello and hello,
                        peering into each other’s faces,
                        slow to let go of each other’s hands.”

This life we share is precious because it is brief.
When we remember that,
            we value each other a little more.
The brevity of life is reason enough to be kinder.
The vulnerability of life is reason enough for patience and generosity.

There is something proud and individualistic
            in the spirituality of our time.
Whether it is Christian, New Age, or the Westernized versions
            of ancient Eastern philosophies,
            it all seems aimed at making ourselves alright
                        – at escaping the hardness of life and death.
Have faith. Fill up your tank with the Holy Spirit
            and your life will be just fine.
Just meditate until you realize your problems
            and those of your neighbors are just thoughts.
Get your mind right and be happy.

But that kind of spirituality is a pipe dream,
            aptly portrayed in Paul Simon’s lyrics,
            “So I’ll continue to continue to pretend
            My life will never end
            And flowers never bend with the rainfall.”

But Jesus did not teach, and did not live,
            a spirituality of escape from the human condition.
He did not offer a way of salvation from life and death
            but a way of salvation through life and death.
Jesus faced his own vulnerability  and made it the point
            of connection with us in our vulnerability.
The poem “In A Parish” by Czeslaw Milosz
            expresses the compassion that comes from knowing
            our own vulnerability and fallibility.
The poet surveys a parish graveyard and says,

            “Had I not been frail and half broken inside
             I wouldn’t think of them, who are like myself broken inside.
             I would not climb the cemetery hill by the church
            To get rid of my self-pity.
            Crazy Sophies,
            Michaels who lost every battle, 
            Self-destructive Agathas
            Lie under crosses with their dates of birth and death. And who
            Is going to express them? Their mumblings, weepings, hopes,
                        tears of humiliation?”

On Ash Wednesday the Church reminds us that we are dust
            so that we will be a little kinder to the dust next to us.
In Lent we remember our sins so that we might be more ready
            to forgive the sinner next to us.

The first step on the Christian way is a serene confidence
            in God’s love and our ultimate salvation.
The second step is to know our own frailty – our total frailty:
            physical, psychological, moral, and spiritual frailty.
The third step is to turn the knowledge of our frailty
            into gentleness toward one another.

A great contemporary theologian, Nicholas Wolterstorff,
            summed up the Christian way in this mortal life.

                                    Mourn humanity’s mourning,
                                    weep over humanity’s weeping,
                                    be wounded by humanity’s wounds . . . .
                                    But do so in the good cheer that a day of peace is coming.”

This Lent, as a Church, it is time to repent from escapist religion,
                        from Gilgamesh’s quest for individual ok-ness.
It is time turn our attention to each other and the communities
                        where we live, to organize and restore our communities,
                                    as Gilgamesh rebuilt the walls of Uruk.
Isaiah 61, the Scripture Jesus chose to define his mission and our mission,
                        says, “They will renew the ruined cities.”
It is time to repent of saving ourselves and rather lose ourselves
                        in devotion to God’s mission of mercy.