Sunday, September 28, 2008

Freedom from the Tyranny of the Self

My pastor just preached on Philippians 2:1-13 this week. Two big concepts from his sermon that really hit me concerned the purpose of the church and narcissism.

We often think that the purpose of the church is for us to reach self-fulfillment. For good or for ill, I have spent most of my life seeing the church's purpose in this way: God uses the church to grow me spiritually through the teaching, prayer, fellowship and discipline that I receive there, and then I become more Christ-like. While it is true that one of God's end goals is for all Christians to be more Christ-like, we must keep in mind that real Christ-likeness is not self-fulfillment. Real Christ-likeness is self-denial. Only when our selves take a back seat do we become more Christ-like. Only when the self dies to itself will I become more like Christ. We see this taught in Philippians 2:1-13: "Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus..." This the is the purpose of the church: to be used by God to make us more like Christ. Another way to say it: the purpose of the church is not for us to achieve self-fulfillment but self-denial.

This sermon was a well-needed attack against my narcissism. When I think the world revolves around me, I am in a dangerous place. When I begin to evaluate everything in life by how it affects me, I am revealing the bankruptcy of my soul. A quote from Christian mystic Thomas Merton illuminates this point: "To consider persons and events and situations only in the light of their effect upon myself is to live on the doorstep of hell. Selfishness is doomed to frustration, centered as it is upon a lie. To live exclusively for myself, I must make all things bend themselves to my will as if I were a god." The purpose of the church is to declare war on my narcissistic tendencies. This war is fought for the good others, but for my own good as well.

An old hymn that I found recently expresses rather well a proper reaction to all this. I recommend checking out all the verses, but here's the first one. It's a good closing thought:

"O Love that will not let me go,
I rest my wounded soul in Thee.
I give Thee back the life I owe,
That in thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be."

Saturday, September 27, 2008

No love without committment

I am learning a great deal these days about the value of committed love. I am seeing how our ability to live in committed love shapes us, our faith in God, and our ability to mature in general. What follows is some thoughts on this that have been helpful for me.

True love does not come but through a committed relationship over time. Love at first sight is not real, at least not in the sense that I'm talking about. A statement like "It was love at first sight" is nonsense. It is like saying: "It was the Sistine Chapel at first sight." Such beauty is a product of passion and commitment. To be certain it embraces the moment of inspiration, but it goes way beyond that.

I am beginning to get a taste of this kind of committed love, having lived just two years in the covenant of marriage. In marriage there is the talking, the waiting, the staying close to see what tomorrow and the next few decades might bring. Unfortunately, there is a part of human nature (which is given greater power in culture today) that runs from commitment and therefore, runs from love, from meaning... and as it learns this habit, from faith and from God himself. I fear that many today will never know the battle and the solace of committed love because there is an easier and more popular way that requires no commitment. It yields something without worth, a poor replica.

This morning I read Psalm 62: For God alone my soul waits in silence, from him comes my deliverance. (Ps 62:1)

I, like the Psalmist, am in covenant with God. I call out to him, talk to him, wait on him. staying near to him to see what he may bring tomorrow and in the years to come. I am knowing more and more the battle and the solace of a committed love with him. But it, like all committed love, does not come with out the waiting, the talking and the continued clinging.

I am convinced that if there's no battle in a relationship, be it with a spouse or with God, this is a sign that the easier road has been taken, that no commitment has been made, and no solace will come. It is in the settling that we lose it all. We must not settle.  We must commit.

Trust in him at all times, O people;
Pour out your heart before him;
God is a refuge for us. (Ps 62:8)

Monday, September 15, 2008

Healing after genocide

When I think of this film and the hope in the Rwanda that it portrays, I am thankful for my connection, however tenuous, to the men who are leading the healing in this country. I am thankful to live and worship under their leadership in my church.... and I'm seeing the greatest and the least being inverted again.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Long Pastorate

In my morning devotions and prayers this morning I ran across this excerpt from John Watson's "The Cure of Souls". It both warmed my heart and filled me with a profound sense of my own inadequacies as a pastor. If you're not in the ministry but you are a Christian, reading this quote may give you a picture of what to expect, in the best case, from your pastor. If you are a minister, there's a vision of pastoral work here that it is truly rare these days. If you're not a Christian, I hope this quote shows you what Christian leaders should look like. But for all of us: isn't this appealing?

One's heart goes back from this eager, restless, ambitious age to the former days, and recalls with found recollection the pastor of his youth, who had lived al his ministry in one place, and was buried where he was ordained--- who had baptized a child, and admitted her to the sacrament, and married her and baptized her children-- who knew all the ins and outs of his people's character, and carried family history for generations in his head-- who was ever thinking of his people, watching over them, visiting their homes, till his familiar figure on the street linked together the past and the present, and heaven and earth, and opened a treasure house of sacred memories. He prayed with a lad before he went away-- his mother could almost repeat the words; he was constantly inquiring about his welfare, so binding him to his faith and home by silken ties; he was in the house on the day of his return, to see how it had fared with him in the outer world. People turned to him as by an instinct in their joys and sorrows; men consulted him in the crises of life, and, as they lay a-dying, committed their wives and children to his care. He was a head to every widow, a father to the orphans, and the friend of all the lowly, discouraged, unsuccessful souls. Ten miles away people did not know his name, but his own congregation regard no other, and in the Lord's presence it was well known, it was often mentioned; when he laid down his trust, and arrived on the other side, many whom he had fed and guided, and restored and comforted, till he saw them through the gates, were waiting to receive their shepherd-minister, and as they stood around him before the Lord, he, of all men, could say without shame, 'Behold, Lord, thine under-shepherd, and the flock thou didst give me.