After All the Striving: Old First E-pistle 10.29.15

After All the Striving: Old First E-pistle 10.29.15

“It doesn’t do much good to love our neighbors as ourselves when we hate ourselves.”

“True dat! I find God’s ability to love me before AND independent of all the ways I try and make myself lovable — in my case, substituting “useful” for ‘worthy of love’ (but others try and be “popular” or “wise” or even “holy” that they might be loved) — pretty much the key to existence (even if I don’t yet have full access to it). Now if only I could more fully live into and live out of that Divine love…”

“Agreed. I probably can only believe I’m loved because… it’s literally a matter of life and death for me.”

“I was nurtured into extreme usefulness by my alcoholic family of origin. I sometimes think of my faith therefore as an almost conscious corrective : grace is very dear to me.”

This conversation with one of you helped me to realize:

1) I treasure God for being able to love me better than I can love myself;

2) In the expansiveness of God’s love, I find room to love myself and others better; and, finally,

3) I believe God’s love as grace — an unearned gift — promises I can leave off trying to earn love.

Those in worship this week, will hear in my sermon that I have been doing a lot of reading lately for a series on end of life issues I’d like to offer at Old First. The topic is crucial and the series needed because we often have an aversion to facing our decline into old age and ultimately our mortality. Ironically, I have found reading the descriptions of growing old into an increasing helplessness (when we can hardly do for ourselves, much less for anyone else) exhilarating.

It turns out, if one’s life affords this denouement of dependency, after all our desperate striving, proud self-sufficiencies and hollow self-justifications, the final chapter (like the opening one) is about having no choice but accepting help. Maybe that’s also a way to think more positively about death itself?

And here’s my hope: backs up against the wall, we might finally recognize that we are worthy of all the resources we need and the space we take up — indeed, worthy of existing in the first place — not because we are productive (or for any other reason!), but because we are loved and precious. In religious language, we are sacred. So is everyone else.

Still, am I the only one who sometimes feels himself in captivity to being useful? On a hamster wheel of all the things I need to get done. Strung out by my obligations. I’m probably not. But it well might be more of a challenge for me than for some others…

It’s more than just keeping busy. We accrue deeds as a way to defend ourselves. Good Karma for the next life (or heaven) and justifications and a halo effect for this life. It seems pretty basic to being human, a built-in default position: we feel insecure, and we compensate or respond by trying to make a case for ourselves. To prove we are useful enough to earn our keep. Or at least needed. In the extreme form, we hope to be indispensable.

I am also guessing that our contemporary capitalism “flattens” every thing, action and person to their utility. In so doing, it reduces any sense of inherent values and makes the coping mechanism of deeds easier to get trapped in.

Our faith offers a completely different view and tack. It suggests that we are valuable in and of ourselves. Independent of our capabilities or productivity. Or any of the others external valuations we grasp for.

Freed from all obligations — with our missions unmistakably unaccomplished — we are freed for grace. And to begin to finally understand our deepest worthiness as recipients of Divine care and cherishing is about love. Not about our being right or doing right. Nor about anything else in all creation.

And in this freedom there’s a transformation: after all the striving that began back before we were even aware (in infancy — the last time we were totally dependent) is behind us, we are left to accept and to cherish our imperfect and unfinished selves as they are… and as God does.

And in that new-found freedom, comes an opportunity to serve not out of insecurity and fear. It’s our chance to cease justifying ourselves. And instead, FROM GRATITUDE — because God’s love is all we really ever needed — and IN THANKSGIVING, we come at last upon and to a more selfless desire to serve.

See you in church,

Michael