Ego, Self, and Ministry: An Explosive Possibility
A sermon preached at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, March 8, 2009
If we were to make a list of gospel passages that we might wish had never been said, the passage from the gospel today might well lead all others. “If any would come after me, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.” Doesn’t this trouble you?
You might be just vaguely aware that there are hosts of people who nurse their victimhood because they think that in doing so they are behaving the way Christ wants them to. Think of the woman whose alcoholic husband beats her and verbally trashes her, who, fearing for her life, takes refuge in the belief that by staying in her marriage she is doing the will of Jesus, just carrying her cross, just carrying her cross. Or think of the hosts of men and women through the centuries who have tried to lower their sense of self-importance by wearing hairshirts, flagellating the skin off their backs, sitting atop pillars for years, starving themselves nearly to death, cutting off body parts, all manner of things. You don’t know anybody like that? Well, believe me, those are live examples, and not all of them in the distant past.
Generally, the harder the saying the more trustworthy its authenticity. So this one must really be authentic! Jesus seems to have been utterly serious. Somehow he had gotten the notion that his vocation involved suffering and denying a shameful death. Peter pulled him aside and argued, “Master! You can’t talk this way. This is no speech for a Messiah to be giving. You’ve got bullies to beat, enemies to conquer, kingdoms to set up, justice to meet out. What’s all this nonsense about suffering and dying? Don’t you think your followers are owed a little consideration? Keep on talking this way, and you’ll do in your own movement.”
And Jesus responds, “You’re thinking the typical human way, Peter—er, Satan—you and that tempting tongue of yours.” (Or words to that effect.) And then he gives us, in the middle of this hard saying, a clue as to what he really is talking about. “Not the way God thinks…,” he adds. There is another way of thinking about these matters. And, frankly, it is a way that isn’t too familiar to the average, virtually unconscious human.
So much of the gospel message depends for a right hearing on how carefully and accurately we understand a couple of basic things. One of those things, which this passage itself defines and illuminates, is that things are not always what they seem. Take death, for instance. Everything that appears to be death is not death, nor is death itself a bad thing. In fact, death is a part of the created order and thank God it is. But, ironically, the very things human beings do to insulate themselves from death frequently only create an illusion that death can be managed or banished. Some of those things, like accumulating power, amassing fortunes, protecting security, and extending life expectancy, look to be life-giving, but in fact are not. They are quite often parts of the program to which Jesus referred when he said, “those who would save their lives will lose them.” Or you can take life, for another instance. Everything that appears to be life is not life.
Sometimes life is lost by those who invest most deeply in the things that are easily identified with the very best things possible: good looks, great intelligence, lots of money, plenty of things. And Jesus is by no means alone in saying that “those who lose their life for my sake and the gospel’s will find it.” For all religious traditions, in one way or another, point to the truth that there is a way to live that is not altogether obvious and which must be consciously sought and chosen.
A third instance of things not being exactly what they seem on the surface is the matter of self. While it is true that Jesus and the gospel writers do not share our preoccupation with “self,” which has come to be a major topic of investigation and discourse through the centuries, it is nonetheless true that at rock bottom, this passage is talking about two different ways of approaching one’s self. Mark uses the word that means “soul” to mean “life.” It is a word that you know: ψυχη or psyche. And, in the New Testament, it frequently means the whole living person, or “self,” if you will. Thanks to depth psychology, we have developed a way of differentiating between the “Self,” by which we mean the core reality of the human being, and the “ego,” which is the conscious, willing self, the “I” that we use to refer to ourselves. (See how tricky language gets?) Ego sometimes gets bad press in places like churches, and it is wrongly assumed that the ego is a bad thing. But the ego is a natural, normal part of us, and we need it to be strong. (If you want to see lots of weak egos, visit a mental hospital.) The problem is that the ego can sometimes get inflated out of all proportion. When that happens, ironically the ego becomes immobilized or ineffective. You can picture the hapless ego as the driver of a stagecoach, unable to control and restrain a team of wild horses, so powerful are the unconscious drives that direct and rule the person. With this in mind, we can take Jesus’ saying to mean: “Those would be my disciples must absolutely come to terms with their egos, and decide not to live an ego-driven life. Because all those things that inflated egos seek spell the death of real life. On the other hand, letting go of the ego and living out of a deeper, truer Self is precisely the way to Life. It involves taking up a cross, which is to say that it is difficult. You will identify with things that your ego would normally run from, like suffering in the cause of Truth, forgiving when all you want to do is keep on hating, and sacrificing for the sake of Justice. But, though you may well lose your life literally, you will in fact find what it is truly to live.”
So far, so good. We now are able to put Jesus’ saying into language that makes a little more sense than a notion that can be used to justify permanent victimhood. But you might remember that you and I are in the process of reading scripture like this from the point of view of what it has to say about ministry. This leads to a very interesting question: is there any such thing as ministry without ego? And, if so, why are great big egos sometimes drawn to ministry, which might look like a way to give up everything but frequently is not that at all? (And I am not talking about ordained ministry, by the way, but about the way we organize and live our whole lives in the service of Truth, with a passion for Justice, guided by Love.)
There is no such thing as egoless ministry. God redeems the ego right along with the rest of us. But if ministry—specifically being a disciple of Jesus—involves living from a different center, acting not from an inflated ego but from a deeper place, how? How do we do it?
We can take a number of approaches. Some will seek authorities—Church tradition, manuals of discipline, books such as The Purpose Driven Life or the old classic In His Steps or the even older classic The Imitation of Christ, celebrities of various kinds, philosophers. One of those authorities may become your guiding star. Others will insist on the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount of some other passage from the Bible. And that may work for you, too. I suggest a third alternative. Focus on a couple of basic practices that can keep you grounded.
The first of these might be to build into your life a regular practice of reflection. Some journal. Some meditate. Others pause and take stock daily in prayer. Others have a spiritual director whom they see periodically. All of these are examples of ways that one can practice being reflective. And why is that important? Because if we don’t stop and look at our lives somewhat objectively, chances are we will continue, like Peter, to think in purely human, ego-driven terms, never seeing the higher way nor hearing the deeper call. We’re apt to get stuck doing the things that our tribe or family or political alliances tell us we ought to do in order to be accepted, and as a result we will live somebody else’s life rather than our own, which we will surely lose.
Another way to ground yourself is to study Jesus’ life diligently, attentively, inquisitively, critically, honestly. You will, of course, ponder the gospels frequently. But also look at what St. Paul—who never knew him personally—has to say about life in Christ. That will lead you into places like Romans 8, in which he discusses “walking in the Spirit of Christ,” and Philippians, in which he describes what it is like to count everything else as so much trash in contrast to knowing and responding to the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. You might try styling your life along the lines of a list in St. Paul, where he enumerates the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. Most of those things are virtues, and you only acquire them by deliberate actions, such as random acts of kindness, or even planned acts of kindness. You and I both have known a lot of people who gained the whole world but never found the beauty of life, but I’ll bet that between us we can’t name one person who has diligently lived a life of kindness, patience, gentleness, and goodness who could tell us that they were so thoroughly disappointed because by doing all those things they had somehow missed out on life. No. Because those things are the abundant life which Jesus came to give us, and which he promises we will in fact find if we stop holding on to our fear of death, let it go, take up this strangely beautiful way of the cross, and follow him.
Sometimes, frankly, I understand those who always have something better to do than to go to church, those who find following Jesus a quaint idea that is quite silly in a world where there are so many other attractive options. I understand how some people are so beat up by churches and stupid hierarchies that they want no further part of anything vaguely Christian. I too find Buddhism attractive with its forthright dealing with suffering and its counsel to detach. I find the option of Judaism compelling with its warm conversations with the Master of the Universe. But when I look into my own heart I see sometimes a fear, not unlike that of John Donne, whose sin of fear was that when he had spun his last thread he would perish on the shore. This Dunn’s fear is that some day this body will cease to work for me, this body I have learned so hard, so late to love. What if, like my mother and her sister and others of my relatives I wind up crippled by a stroke, no longer able to run or walk or paint or write, maybe even like Jean-Dominique Bauby, my ψυχη, my life sealed in a frozen body, unable to communicate or even, like him, to dictate by winking my one working eye a whole book called the Diving Bell and the Butterfly? I fear losing life as I know it and I want to save it (don’t you?). And then I flip through the annals of Christ lovers and find the story of Samuel Isaac Joseph Schereschewsky. He was a Russian Jew who converted to Christianity, came to this country in the 1850’s, and wound up becoming a missionary to China and eventually Bishop of Shanghai. Facile in languages, he had taught himself Chinese on the voyage to the Orient. Translating the Bible into Wenli, he determined to carry on his work even after devastating paralysis caused him to resign his see. So for the rest of his life he pecked out on a typewriter (100 or more years ago) using the middle finger of his partially paralyzed hand over 2000 pages of text. Before he died, he said, “I have sat in this chair for twenty years. At first it seemed hard. But God knew best. He kept me for the work for which I am best fitted.”
All who would lose their life for my sake and the gospel’s will find it. Would you rather have it that way, or gain the whole world?
© Frank G. Dunn, 2009