Sunday, June 16, 2013

Christ, self, hymns and eternity

Text: Galatians 2 15-21 (dying and rising with Christ)

Selfishness is a common pitfall for many of us. But have you ever considered that feeling bad about one's self might also be a form of selfishness? Pride is a self-centred feeling. But so are self-blame and self-hatred.

I have been feeling bad about myself the last few weeks. I have had a pain under my right shoulder-blade, and it has slowed me down.

When I feel pain like this, I fear that it might reflect a character flaw. At the least, the pain leads me to work less and spend more time moping. And now I have an additional fear that my preoccupation with my shoulder is self-centred.

In today's reading from Galatians, Paul shows us an extreme way to avoid selfishness. He writes that he has been crucified with Christ and that he no longer lives. Instead, it is Christ, or the sovereign Spirit of God, that lives in him.

Paul is liberated from the demands of religious law by the grace that comes with death. Further, since Paul's self has died, he can't act selfishly anymore, can he? Since he is already dead, worries about pain and desire also disappear.

Paul, I think, is suggesting that the individual self is an illusion. It might seem like the most obvious and important thing in each of our worlds. But in truth, the self is just a necessary illusion. When, with grace, we become aware of this illusion, the self dies painfully with Christ. After this crucifixion, Christ is reborn in our hearts, and we are free to enter eternal life in God.

Paul's statement strikes me as quite remarkable; and today's reading from Galatians is the most important one in the Bible for me outside of the Gospels. I believe in what he writes. I am sure that it gets to the heart of God's Grace. But this does not mean that I don't have trouble understanding Paul's message or living into it.

When I came up with the idea to use this service as a time for singing favourite hymns -- this after hearing complaints from many people about the strange hymns I often choose for Sunday worship -- I wondered if I might postpone preaching on Paul's text from Galatians until after my summer break. Maybe I would feel more up to that difficult task after a month off.

In pursuit of that idea, I pulled a book about hymns off of my shelf to see if it might help. It is called "Simple Gifts: Great Hymns: One Man's Search for Grace." An inscription in the book reminded me that it was a gift from a woman who had looked to me for spiritual guidance three years ago.

I have now read the book with pleasure. The book and the story of my friend, Phyllis, who gave it to me linked up in my mind with today's reading from Galatians about self and death, Christ and grace. So today I tell the story of my friend Phyllis, and of the book she gave me as a way to approach Paul's astonishing letter, Galatians.

I met Phyllis three years ago when I was a student minister in Didsbury Alberta. She came to worship on Mother's Day 2010 as I was nearing the end of my 10 months in Alberta. Her mother, Shirley, had been a keen and active member of Knox United in Didsbury for many years, and was now dying of cancer. Phyllis travelled with her husband Jack from New York to be with her mother and the rest of Shirley's family for one last Mother's Day.

Shirley died a few weeks later and I got to know Phyllis better in the preparation for the funeral. It was the last one at which I presided in Didsbury. Phyllis also came to my final service in Didsbury, which was held on June 13, 2010, and she was the last person I spoke with before I drove out of town and headed back east to Toronto.

Phyllis continued to correspond with me via email. She told me that the funeral and the two Sunday services in Didsbury had inspired her to become a minister herself. When she and Jack visited friends in Toronto in the summer of 2010, I spent an afternoon with her talking about options she might pursue to become a minister. It was then that she gave me the book about hymns.

At my suggestion, Phyllis enrolled in the United Church's Ministry-Based-Ordination Program run out of the Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax. In this program, students work as supply ministers and do most of their coursework online. They also gather for six weeks in Halifax each summer over five years where they take other courses in intensive bursts. I told Phyllis that I wished I had known about this program when I made the crazy leap of faith to become a minister six years ago.

The next summer in 2011, Phyllis had almost finished her first summer term in Halifax when I got a strangled phone call from her husband Jack. He told me that she had unexpectedly died in her sleep on her last night in Halifax, probably as a result of complications from surgery she had had a few years earlier.

I felt guilty about Phyllis' death. It was at my suggestion that she had decided to to study in Halifax. Maybe if she had been home in New York with her husband, he could have gotten her to treatment in time to save her, although who knows?

Nevertheless, the facts are what they are. Phyllis was inspired by services I led in Alberta. She took my advice about which program to attend. She died while in Halifax. And she left me a book about hymns, which now informs my thinking today.

The author of the book, Bill Henderson, reminds me of myself, which is what Phyllis had written in her inscription. He was raised in a devout family, left the church as an adolescent, and returned after years of skepticism. Like me, he is inspired by hymns. Like me, he appreciates theology that points to the end of the self or ego and argues that salvation, eternity and heaven are states that arise in the here and now when our small self dies and we become aware of the inner Christ. Like me, Henderson appreciates Galatians 2 and St. Paul's suggestion that the self is an illusion.

Henderson focuses on the Quaker hymn "Simple Gifts," "Amazing Grace," "Be Thou My Vision," and "Make Me A Channel of Your Peace." The latter hymn ends with the line that it is only by dying that we gain eternal life.

But is it true that the self is an illusion, and is this what Paul is suggesting? Many religious leaders seem to say the opposite. Heaven is thought by many to be an endless existence for the ego where all moments are blissful ones. Hell is supposed to be an endless existence for the ego where all moments are ones of torment.

For me, such ideas are both incoherent and self-centred. Am I supposed to be so full of myself that I believe either that I am so terrible that God will torture me forever, or that I am so wonderful that God will sustain my ego in a supposed state of bliss?

I embrace the ideas of eternity and salvation, but I do not connect them to an illusory and pain-filled ego or self. True, we cannot function without a notion of the self even if it is an illusion. It is the most well-developed and complex concept in our minds. Our egos are the pole around which we make all decisions and digest all of our experience, feelings and thoughts.

Nevertheless, our egos are completely dependent on earthly life with its billions of years of history and the thousands-year-old human culture within which we live. They key product of culture is language with which our minds are constructed.

The earth, life, and humanity are Sacred to us. To the extent that there is anything Sacred about us as individuals, it is not our egos. We each carry within us a Sacred flame, which reflects our connection to the earth, to life, and to the rest of humanity. In the church, we call this flame the inner Christ. It is both far more profound and far less unique than our egos. In Galatians, Paul reminds us that the Christ within us is everything and that our selves are nothing.

The ups and downs of life can help show us that individuality is an illusion. With grace, we sometimes realize that we are not as great as we imagine; nor are we as wretched as we sometimes feel. We are children of God who are dependent on God for everything. We are not responsible for the earth, life, or the culture in which we find ourselves. We are not the source of either life's triumphs or its tragedies.

Grace is waking up to this reality. In order to be crucified with Christ, we don't have to do anything. In order to rise to new life in Christ beyond the small self, we don't have to do anything. For me, this is amazing grace.

The best we can hope for in worship, I think, is to sometimes get help to become aware of this grace. Becoming aware of personal crucifixion and communal resurrection does not always come easily. But we are confident that we can taste it at any moment. Most importantly, we are sure that this reality is unavoidable when our individual bodies finally die.

This idea of dying to our old selves and rising to new life in Christ is not a ploy to let us off the hook for our actions. Rather, it reminds us that we live within God's freedom and joy, despite our individual problems. Within this Sacred realm, we can work for God's kingdom without attachment to any outcomes.

I am sorry that Phyllis died unexpectedly two years ago in Halifax, just as I am sorry that her mother Shirley died not so unexpectedly three years ago in Didsbury. I am glad that I didn't die when I rolled my car in February. I am glad that we are here today to pray, to sing, and to worship together. But as Paul reminds us in Romans, whether we live or we die, we are God's. For this, we give thanks and praise.

Individual life is fleeting, but communal life within God's spirit is eternal, which is a truth we can taste in any moment through the power of the Spirit.

Singing has often helped me become aware of new life in Christ. I love hymns, even if I sometimes disagree with the words. I love choirs, even when we don't sing perfectly. Hymn singing takes me beyond my small self and into the bigger realm of  humanity and God's Holy Spirit.

Today, I feel somewhat discouraged that after three years of ministry, I cannot better describe the good news that our small selves are an illusion and that Grace is found in a communal life within God's Spirit. But somewhere in the swirl of ideas and memories I have mentioned this morning about singing, about Phyllis, about my painful shoulder, about death, and about surprising new life, I believe there is a sermon struggling to get out. Maybe next year . . .

Even more importantly, I hope that the hymns we sing after this sermon will help us know again that the Spirit of God in Christ is within us and between us. We often suffer from pain, even a pain as terrible as crucifixion. The good news is that after crucifixion, Love comes to new life as Christ within us and in others, both now and always.

Thanks be to God.


No comments:

Post a Comment