Finding & Losing Life
For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses
for my sake and the gospels will save it. (Mark 8: 35)
This is a very important passage dead center in the middle of Mark so we wont miss it. This is where the long hinted at Messianic secret is revealed. When Jesus asks the disciples, "Who do you say that I am?" Peter replies, "You are the Christ." Peter gets it right for Jesus charges him to tell no one. The Messianic secret is to remain secret. Triumphant as this confession is, just as quickly Peter finds out what it means. The Christ is not to be a monarch like King David but a suffering servant as described in Isaiah:
For my part, I made no resistance, neither did I turn away. I offered my back to those who struck me, my cheeks to those who tore at my beard; I did not cover my face against insult and spittle. (Isaiah 50: 5b-6)
Peter is horrified by this news as we should be too if we had not heard it so many times already. It is a remarkable and horrible thing to have a Christ whos mission is to suffer and die. Tucked away at the end of this story is a little passage that says something to us about suffering and the nature of discipleship and I want us to look at it.
Mark 8:35 " For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the Gospels will save it."
So what does this mean? Should we all throw ourselves to the lions? Does God really want us to die for Her?
Lets look at this passage more closely. A lot depends on what we mean by life and death. How hard could it be to figure out life and death? You are either alive or you are dead right? Whats so complicated about that?
I think it is possible to be more alive and more dead. Remember the movie The Night of the Living Dead? The living dead were alive in that they walked around but they had these blank expressions on their faces. They were zombies - nothing was going on inside. They attacked the living live in wave upon senseless wave. Dont we all know some living dead? People who weigh us down pull the life out of us - they look like they are alive but they are not. Sometimes we may feel like we are the living dead. Then there are the people who always make us feel better. They are more alive. So it is possible to be more alive and less alive.
What other words could we use for life here? - vitality, consciousness, a sense of inner direction, spontaneity, relatedness. How can we get this for ourselves? And will we be punished for doing this? For remember the passage says, "whoever seeks to save life will lose it."
Lets assume that there is a wisdom in this passage we dont see yet and work a little harder on it. Think of how do we seek to save our lives. By medical treatment, investing for the future, making a home for ourselves, gaining achievements, degrees, promotions doing things which boost our standing with ourselves and others, assuring ourselves that we are secure and well-loved.
There is nothing wrong with seeking these things per se, but when we need these things to feel all right about ourselves it comes at a price. All these things we do to secure ourselves build walls around us. The lovely castle or business or home we have invested our lives in keeps us safe by keeping people out. We keep life out.
If we secure ourselves by our achievements: degrees, promotions, awards then we become invested in these. They make us superior, above others, secure in our position, but investment in being superior means that part of us is not available to just be with others as we are. We are so secure that nothing can happen to us, but that is just the point, nothing does happen to us. We dont have a life because our life becomes about shoring things up - not about living. Nothing affects us. We have spent so much energy making everything in ourselves presentable that we do not have time to be present. We are so busy thinking about protecting our investment or about how much better we are than everybody else who isnt nearly so perfect as we are that we can not really receive the smile of a child or see that our neighbor is in need or hear the voice of God within us. We just are not really maximally alive.
When we try to gain life we accumulate things around us we build such a big wall that we cant move, cant feel, cant respond.
What would happen if we allowed ourselves to lose life?
We really cant try to lose life - it is like trying to lose your house keys. With trying you bring so much consciousness to where you are losing the keys that you can remember where you lose them. Losing life is like losing your keys. It is very simple, if you dont think too hard about it. You lose life when you can give away things - money, love, possessions just because it feels right in the moment not because you are expecting a big pay back because lets face it - if you are expecting a big pay back it is not losing it is trading.
Losing means allowing your life to happen watching it unfold, allowing it to flow where it needs to go on its own accord. Trusting that flow. We always think we are so much more in charge of things than we really are anyway. When we dont control our lives so much, we realize how much more we need other people - we may not feel we are so special, but we do feel we are more a part of things. We gain more life from the outside. We also gain more life from the inside because when we let go of the tight grip we have on ourselves and let ourselves happen we know who we are. We are whats happening now.
One of the hardest things to lose is our ironclad sense of identity. Whether we are invested in seeing ourselves as the most wonderful person in the world or the worse we are still tying up energy worrying about it; energy that could better be spent just being present to ourselves and others. If we dont have to spend so much energy making sure we know who we are and making sure everyone else knows who we are we will have energy to just be and experience ourselves. This is how we find life when we experience things deeply in the moment.
Let me put forth a couple of current examples. Princess Diana. Here is a young woman who married the future King of England assuring herself of money, fame, a place in history, as has so often been said a fairy tale marriage. She became a different person, a princess. . But by gaining all these things, Diana did not gain life - she was miserable, isolated, bulimic and suicidal. Diana only found life when she confronted her own suffering and began to relate to the suffering of others. Then she became a person in her own right with her own inner life, her own authority, her own gifts. She was no longer an appendage to the Prince, responding to the proddings and slights of the Royal family but the author of her own life. When she stopped being the Princess, she began her own life.
Similarly, there is the life of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. A woman who died owning only 3 saris and a Bible, active and life-giving until the end of her life. She spent herself daily on whoever was around her, she claimed nothing for herself but she became a world renown figure, a symbol for goodness and self-sacrifice who has enhanced the life of millions. In losing her life - in letting it happen unfettered, in responding deeply to the suffering around her, she found a greater life for herself.
On a more personal and less dramatic note: three and a half years ago I began working at Rikers Island as a Mental Health Specialist. This was a job I did not want to do. I thought it would be terrible - physically and emotionally draining, helping inmates who did not want to be helped, being overwhelmed with the hopelessness and waste of their lives. I felt like my life was over. All these feelings that I feared came true. But my life was not over. What I didnt know was that I would find new life at Rikers.
My world would broaden and it would take in these injured men. I began to think about the larger causes of emotional illness, I began to see racism and question the criminal justice system. I began to feel more deeply about the problem of poverty in this country. I was also enriched by strong working realtionships with men and women of different races and nationalities. I began to appreciate the value of working on a team and to realize how much I needed other people, and to appreciate that there were things that other people could do and I could not. Finally I was able to appreciate some ot the prisonsers - to see the odds that were against them and to be enriched by their struggles. I came to realize that the world was much bigger than I thought. I have come to consider my work at Rikers to be a real gift.
So let us leave worship this morning considering the issue of finding and losing life. In what ways do we hold on to life so tightly that we can not just be in it? In what ways are we closed off to the life around us and within us so that we live in a very small container? In what ways are we one of the living dead? I ask you to ponder these things not so that you will feel bad, but so that you may consder the possiblity that there is more life to be found.
I would like to conclude with a few words about Rauschenbusch Church which is celebrating its 15th anniversary today. Rauschenbusch has always been a special place to me, it is the church out of which I was ordained, eleven years ago today and I have always felt the warmth and support of this congregation.
You have always had a special mission as a church - "to minister to the artist and nurture the creative spirit in all of us." The creative and the spiritual are born of the same mother, the same tumbling unconscious process. When we let go of the conventional definitions of reality, when we let go of our indoctrinated methods of knowing, we allow ourselves to know the uncontrollable feelings and impulses that are the depth out of which we live. It is this depth on which our conscious self sits that gives richness and meaning to our lives.
In her book Religion and the Unconscious (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: the Westminster Press, 1975.) Ann Ulanov describes religion as that container that can hold this unformed activity. Religion holds our deepest feelings and intuitions, protecting them from the criticism of every day reality and, likewise, keeps us from being overwhelmed by these feelings and going crazy. When religion says "this is a valuable religious experience," it gives us the space to integrate this tumbling inner process so that it can enrich our lives.
What is special about Rauschenbusch is not that it offers a container for this as yet unborn reality, but that it offers such a unique container. It is as if Al Carmines and the assembled folk 15 years ago set out to start a new religion - to redefine everything. You have created a church which combines the secular with the religious in a unique and authentic way. You have taken secular songs and secular language and by importing them into the church have made them holy so that when we leave the service we are continuing to search for the holy in the secular world. The hymn we always sing: "Walk in the Light" sums up Rauschenbusch. The holy shines through the everyday world. Look for it and live in it.
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