Journey to Wholeness – Lent 4

“Keep Your Identity Small,” Bob Ryder

Our worship services have centered on the theme “Journey to Wholeness” during Lent. For this fourth subject in the series we’re considering the experience of pride.  Here are a few readings to get us started…

Proverbs 11:2– When pride comes, then comes disgrace; but wisdom is with the humble.

Matthew 5:33-37 – You’ve heard it said from ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” I say don’t swear at all, not “by heaven” for it is the throne of God, nor “by earth” for it is his footstool, nor “by Jerusalem” for it is the city of the great King. Do not even swear by your own head, for you can’t make so much as a single hair white or black. When you give your word, simply say “Yes” or “No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pride) – Prideis an inwardly directed emotionthat carries two antithetical meanings. With a negative connotation pride refers to a foolishly and irrationally corrupt sense of one’s personal value, status or accomplishments, used synonymously with hubris. In Judaism, pride is called the root of all evil. With a positive connotation, pride refers to a humble and content sense of attachment toward one’s own or another’s choices and actions, or toward a whole group of people, and is a product of praise, independent self-reflection, and a fulfilled feeling of belonging.

Elton John – Philadelphia Freedom – “I used to be a heart beating for someone, but the times have changed. The less I say the more my work gets done.”

REFLECTION
Who are you?  How do you define yourself?  How doyou introduce yourself when you want to make a strong first impression? Do you offer the same basic information from one person or situation to another, or do you elaborate some things and hold back others depending on the context?  What activities or experiences, what groups or ideas or traditions do you identify with?  “I’m a card carrying member of…” “If you know nothing else about me, know that…”  How might you want your obituary to read?

Content is one important thing about your self-image, to be sure.  Some identities are more valid than others, more worthy of a place in society. I’d rather have neighbors introduce themselves saying, “I’m a full time mom,” or “a full time dad,” than “I’m one of those knows how to give the cops a run for their money!” But beyond the specifics of how you portray yourself, there’s also the issue of what you’re inclined to accomplish by sharing aspects of your identity or things you associate with yourself.  “I’m a lifelong member of the Libertarian Party.”  “I’m a Jersey boy.”  “I’m a chef.” “I’m a classical guitarist.” “I like to stir the pot.”  “I climbed Mt. Everest.”  “I played in the Little League World Series.”  Interesting, but why are you telling me that?  What’s the payoff?

There’s incalculable value in knowing who you are.  Understanding one’s own likes and dislikes, strengths and weakness, behavior patterns, awareness of the ideas and traditions and institutions by which we organize of our lives, consider what we want to accomplish, and evaluate our progress – all of that is vitally useful.  Knowing who you are compared with who you were and who you intend to become gives you power as you decide how to spend your days in this world.  It allows you to cultivate the poise that comes from self-control and self-esteem.  “With a positive connotation, priderefers to a humbleand content sense of attachment to one’s own or another’s choices and actions, or toward a whole group of people, and is a product of praise, independent self-reflection, and a fulfilled feeling of belonging.” And consider this portion from the definition of humility.  “…being “unselved”, a liberation from consciousness of self, a form of temperance that is neither having pride (or haughtiness) nor indulging in self-deprecation.”To the extent any of that describes your experience of identity, congratulations – keep going! The more you’re at ease with yourself, the less likely you are to mess with others.  On the other hand, to the extent that you tend to mess with others, consider it an invitation and a warning to examine your feelings about yourself.

At some level, the Christian season of Lent is simply about jettisoning some of the human baggage that interferes with our ability to participate in life authentically and well. As we began a few minutes ago, I mentioned as the theme our worship panning team selected for Lent this year being “Journey to Wholeness” and it occurs to me that wholeness is about both healing what’s missing or broken and removing what’s excessive or corrosive. Pride seems to fall into that excessive/corrosive pile.  Fitting into society is complicated enough without getting bogged down in incessant appetites and prejudices and self-deceptions.  Chances are a significant percentage of people you interact with day to day are tangled up in their own ego baggage.  So, if nothing else we make it a little easier and safer for ourselves when we’re not dragging around a lot of bulky attitude about our own importance or lack thereof.

Lent gives us a chance to see the landscape we’re moving around in more clearly by encouraging a spring cleaning of our mental clutter.  It invites us to sort of cleanse our spiritual palette, as if life were a steak with too much sauce on it.  At some point all you experience is the sauce and not the main course.  If Christianity has anything valuable to offer, mostly it’s wisdom for relating to our neighbors on the planet with grace. That’s the main course, in my view – fine tuning our skills for trading in cooperation and kindness.  All the extras we gather hobble our ability to pursue that worthy and challenging main reason for having a turn on the solar merry-go-round – being graceful and cooperative.  To be on that path, whether one pursues it through Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, philosophy, counseling, sports, family life, a career – to make progress maturing as a human being we have to get over ourselves. This is never achieved in an episode or as an epiphany so much as by a process of taking several hard won steps forward and inevitably a few clumsy steps back.

Humility as a manifestation of being “unselved”, a liberation from self-consciousness, a form of temperance that indulges neither haughtiness nor self-deprecation.  I remember a professor I admired in grad school talking about the truth of Christianity being superior to other faith traditions.  He was a philosophy professor, and in the process of debunking some supposedly common and persuasive argument against Christianity, he said in a pointedly smug voice, “Uh uh – not with ME, baby.”  I was struck because I’d never noticed that aspect of his personality before, and pretty much from that point on I noticed that however well-reasoned and artful his apologetics were, I couldn’t take him as seriously. What changed was I sensed Christianity had become, for him, a means to enhance his identity.  “I’m the guy who can out argue anyone about the reasonableness of Christian faith.”  Who cares?

Now, to point those three fingers back at myself, I’ll this story.  A few years ago, I was chatting with Dave Hirst over coffee. We were talking about dogs and somehow the conversation took a turn in which I took the opportunity to observe, “I’m the best dog trainer in central Illinois.” Almost as soon as I said it, certainly within a few hours, I began to hear the fingernail on chalkboard egotistical overtones of that statement echoing in my head.  “I’m the best dog trainer…” Good grief – what an obnoxious thing to say.  First, I have no idea whether or not that’s true.  But more importantly how insecure and full of myself must I have been in that moment to express such a grandiose claim about my identity?  What does it matter or even mean, “I’m the best!”?  Who cares?  If I need to dwell on my abilities in that kind of zero-sum comparison, what chance do I have to be a colleague?  What chance do I have to learn from others or share something I’ve learned with that pile of ego bouncing around?  What chance do I have to acknowledge to a client when I don’t know something about their dog’s behavior?  It’s certainly way more about behavior I don’t know yet than I’ve already learned. It’s important to acknowledge that, and when you’re full of yourself, there’s no room for things like knowledge or wisdom or love.  Ego driven identity is weak and fragile, ignorant and insecure. What are those lines from Max Ehrmann’s “Desiderata?”

Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant; they too have their story.  []  If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Here is a scene from “Hell or High Water,” and a scene from “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” See if you can feel those “full of self” and “unselfed” expressions of pride and humility.

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S8c4KinQdgg)

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eJdHxwW0EZE)

So, it’s that problematic experience of pride we’re learning to recognize this morning, hopefully. It’s the temptation to make an issue of our identity – to decide whether and how we relate to others, whether and how we’ll process information, whom we’ll treat with respect and who we’re going to hassle based on how we identify ourselves – that’s the thing to think about as we journey together deeper into Lent.  I suppose the take away is to maintain a small identity and resist the temptation to counterfeit our self-worth or inflate our social standing by peddling anything more than basic integrity, curiosity, and proactive grace as we encounter others.  Thank you for your kind attention.  Take a moment to consider a thought you might want to share, and we’ll pass the microphone for a few minutes.