Friday, September 25, 2015

Me, Myself and I

Sermon preached September 20, 2015

Texts: James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

Billie Holiday, “Me, Myself and I”
An elderly gentleman operated an antique shop in a large tourist city.  A visitor to his store once came in and began conversing with the old gentleman.  The tourist asked about some of the items that were piled all throughout the store.  Said the tourist, “What would you say is the strangest, most mysterious thing you have here?”  The old man looked around at the unique art, the stuffed animals, the old toys, wonderful stones.  He then replied to the tourist, “The strangest and most mysterious thing in this shop is unquestionably me.”
A teacher was lecturing her students on modern inventions.  “Can any of you name something of importance that did not exist fifty years ago?” she asked the class.  One bright young girl, sitting near the front, raised her hand and said, “Me!”  (Anthony DeMillo, Taking Flight, 131)
Mysterious, strange perhaps, unique, important – me, myself and I.  Yet such thoughts seem to run counter to much of Scripture and Christian tradition.  C. S. Lewis, in the words used in our invitation to worship, gives us every reason to suspect the self.  “You are a bundle of self-centered fears, hopes, greeds, jealousies, and self-conceit.”  Not a very flattering portrait, but one not foreign to much Christian thinking.  These words come from the Eastern monastic tradition of Christianity, from about the eighth century: There is no greater evil than that of self-love.  The winged children of self-love are self-praise, self-satisfaction, gluttony, unchastity, self-esteem, jealousy and the crown of all these, pride.  Pride can drag down not men alone, but even angels from heaven, and surround them with darkness instead of light. (St. Hesychios the Priest, Philokalia, I:198)
Today’s Scripture readings would lead us to be suspicious of any celebrations of the self.  James issues a warning against self-ambition, a caution against the cravings of the self.  Selfish ambition leads to disorder and wickedness, disputes and conflicts.  The words of Jesus seem to caution against being too fond of oneself.  “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
Me, myself and I seems to be a problem for a Jesus spirituality.  Self easily inflates, and we must guard against that.  Self craves, and those cravings are trouble.  As an alternative way we are directed toward being pure, gentle, willing to yield, and merciful.  As an alternative way we are offered the image of a child, a virtual nobody in the culture of Jesus time.
I don’t know about you, but to see the self only as a problem is itself problematic.  In college I majored in both philosophy and psychology.  I was drawn to psychology in high school, and I was particularly drawn to the work of Abraham Maslow, a vitally important figure in what was often called “humanistic psychology.”  Maslow, in his work, views self-esteem quite differently.  “No psychological health is possible unless this essential core of the person is fundamentally accepted, loved and respected by others and by himself” (Toward a Psychology of Being, 196).  For Maslow, this is not simply the popular idea that we need to feel good about ourselves.  It is more complex and robust.  Self-esteem and self-respect needs are desires for genuine achievement, for “real capacity, competence, and adequacy to the task” (Maslow, Motivation and Personality, Second Edition, 45-46).  In other words we have needs for esteem and love that include some sense of our own abilities to affect the world.  Maslow: Satisfaction of the self-esteem need leads to feelings of self-confidence, worth, strength, capability, and adequacy, of being useful and necessary in the world (Motivation and Personality, 45)
Another psychologist from whom I have and continue to learn a lot from is Rollo May.  He also writes profoundly about self-esteem.  To be sure, one ought not to think too highly of one’s self, and a courageous humility is the mark of the realistic and mature person.  But thinking too highly of oneself, in the sense of self-inflation and conceit, does not come from greater consciousness of one’s self or greater feelings of self-worth.  In fact, it comes from just the opposite.  Self-inflation and conceit are generally the external signs of inner emptiness and self-doubt; a show of pride is one of the most common covers for anxiety. (Man’s Search for Himself, 97)
Christian Scriptures and tradition caution us against an inflated sense of self, against selfish ambition, against too great a concern for personal “greatness.”  Psychologists complicate the picture by arguing for the importance of self-esteem.  They also point out that self-inflation often comes not from too much self-esteem, but from too little – from emptiness and self-doubt.  Certainly Jesus and James were not interested in fostering a sense of emptiness and self-doubt that would, ironically, feed the very kind of self-aggrandizement they find problematic.
How do we fit all this together?  What does an appropriate Christian sense of self look like?  I think William Stringfellow, also in our Invitation to Worship, is on to something when he writes, “what it means to be a Christian is, wonderfully, just synonymous with what it means to be, no more and no less than a human being.”  What does it mean to be a human being in relation to God and to others?  What sense of self makes sense?
A Christian sense of self is neither a denigration of oneself nor self-aggrandizement, being too enamored with oneself.  A Christian sense of self has strength and gentleness.  Here are some of its elements.
A Christian sense of self is rooted, above all, in knowing that we are unalterably and wonderfully loved by God.  The first four words of many a Christian’s favorite Scripture reading are, “For God so loved…”  Abraham Maslow indicates that no psychological health is possible unless this essential core of the person is fundamentally accepted, loved and respected by others and by himself.  I think no deep spiritual health is possible without knowing deeply and fundamentally that we are accepted and loved by God just as we are.  We are worthy of respect and self-respect simply because we are.
But genuine self-esteem has something to do with knowing that we are capable, that we can be adequate to the task.  A Christian sense of self recognizes that we have gifts and strengths and limitations.  The journey with Jesus requires strength.  Sometimes our strengths are also part of our limitations.  You have to hand it to the disciples.  They are an audacious bunch.  They leave their everyday lives behind to follow this Jesus, who they often don’t get.  He says that he is going to be in for trouble in Jerusalem, that his end is death, and they are arguing about who is the greatest!  They wanted to be significant.  They wanted to make a difference.  These are gifts, but they can go awry.  A courageous humility is an important part of a Christian sense of self, courage to see our strengths, courage to see our limitations.
Humility is another essential element in a Christian sense of self.  I really like what Robert Emmons writes about humility.  Humility is the realistic appraisal of one’s strengths and weaknesses – neither overestimating nor underestimating them.  To be humble is not to have a low opinion of oneself, it is to have an accurate opinion of oneself.  It is the ability to keep one’s talents and accomplishments in perspective, to have a sense of self-acceptance, and understanding of one’s imperfections, and to be free from arrogance and low self-esteem. (The Psychology of Ultimate Concerns, 171).  Humility is recognizing simultaneously that we are loved deeply and wildly by God, and that God isn’t finished with us yet.
That sense of being unfinished is also an important element in a Christian sense of self.  The disciples keep learning and growing in their journey with Jesus.  Jesus holds up welcoming children in the Gospel reading.  Children are open and vulnerable and growing.  Can we welcome that part of ourselves?  Can we be open and vulnerable and continue to grow – grow in that wisdom that is pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits (James 3:17)?
But to say that being open and vulnerable is an important element in a Christian sense of self means more than being open to our own growth, as important as that is.  It also means being open to the other.  A Christian sense of self understands that our relationships matter, and how we live together with others not only flows from who we are but shapes who we are.  “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.”  Welcome children.
Another essential element in a Christian sense of self is a recognition of our need for forgiveness.  We are people with high ideals.  We look to Jesus and say we want to be like him.  We want to be wise and loving, gentle and generous.  We want to touch the world in ways that foster justice, peace and reconciliation.  We will not always be those people.  We will need forgiveness.
Having said that, I want to return to an earlier element in a Christian sense of self, that we are gifted, that we have strengths.  We are and we do, and we need to help each other discover and use our best gifts, and we need to celebrate those gifts joyously.  Throughout its history, the church has often focused on humility to the point of humiliation.  We have focused on sin and wrongdoing to the point where we have left people feeling that they are not much good for anything except to beg God for a modicum of love, and hope that they are good enough to get some.  We’ve not always done a good job of reminding people of the wild love and grace of God which loves each of us beyond measure, and that we are created in God’s image with strengths and gifts.
Here’s the wonderful paradox and mystery at the heart of a Christian sense of self.  At the heart of a Christian sense of self isn’t the self, but it is God, God who loves us into being and into blossoming.

There is in the Talmud, that vast and wonderful collection of Jewish wisdom this wonderful saying.  “Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers ‘Grow, grow.’” (Midrash Rabba Bereshit 10:6)  Every person has the Spirit of God whispering to them, “You are loved, become love – grow, grow.”  In that we find our sense of self.  In that our self-esteem is grounded.  Listen to the voice again in your own life.  Amen.

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