The Rev. Rob Courtney
Fr. Rob is the Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church & School
Only two truths left in our Lenten journey through life's five hard truths. These truths are explored in more detail in Richard Rohr's book Adam's Return: The Five Promises of Male Initiation. Last week, we talked about the truth that your life is not about you. This week's truth is that you are not in control.
Throughout my life, I've encountered situations over which I've had zero control. It can be frustrating and anxiety inducing. In fact, my life has felt totally out of control at some points, which is true for you too, I'm sure. For me, the time when I felt the least control in my life was probably my early 20s when I'd lost my parents to health issues. That period of life was one when I didn't know which way was up. While there are always factors in our lives that we can control, things like unexpected health issues, the death of loved ones, economic downturns, weather events and other natural disasters, not to mention myriad other occurences, there's a lot we cannot control. Think of the last three years--whether COVID or Hurricane Ida, etc., there's a been a lot about life that's totally outside of our control.
I just did a quick Google search of the phrase "get control of your life" and it offered approximately 377,000 results. Clearly, there are a lot of people who feel like they need to reign their lives in, and there are many people out there who are willing to help. A lot of the advice is good, like this article I found. One of my favorite books from the last couple of years is called At Your Best: How to Get Time, Energy & Priorities Working in Your Favor by Carey Nieuwhof. I highly recommend this book. Nieuwhof does a lot of coaching for pastors and other church leaders, but this book is for any and everyone. In one section, he talks about control, and he says this: "There is so much within our control--from our bedtime, to our attitude, to what we eat and drink, to the sequence with which we tackle our work, to what we let slide and what we embrace. You have more control than you think. So do I. Mindset matters. . . . Focus on what you can control, not on what you can't" (p. 105-106). Sometimes, for instance, we allow people around us to dictate our schedules and our priorities. Why? A text comes through on your day off, or you're focusing on a task that needs completing and someone comes into your office with a problem--we end up dropping things and allowing other people to decide what's important for us. Nieuwhof calls this "hijacked priorities," and he says they "happen when you allow other people to determine what you get done" (p. 27). We're often afraid to say "no," or aren't sure how to say it with grace. Sure, sometimes things are important and derail us, but aren't there also a lot of things that, in hindsight, could wait? Absolutely. Whose fault is it really when someone hijacks my priorities? Well . . . *sigh* . . . me.
Yes, there are a lot of things within our control, and usually more than we think. At the same time, like some of the examples I listed above--illness, death, natural disaster--there's a ton we can't control, too. Richard Rohr points out that we live in a control-obsessed society. The modern age believes all problems can be solved, and will do its best to wring the mystery out of anything. He writes, "We are destined to become control freaks in a secular society because there is no one who we know, trust, or like enough to finally hand over control to. In fact, you would be absolutely irresponsible if you did not micromanage everything and engineer every situation" (Adam's Return, p. 161). He goes on to say that in a society like that, "When so many people have been given a sense of entitlement and deservedness, when taking control of your life has been made into a national mantra, quite contrary to the whole spiritual tradition, we are setting ourselves up for hurt and for hurting one another more than ever before" (p. 162).
I believe a lot of anxiety (at least mine, anyway) comes from spending too much time worrying about things I cannot control. This is what the "serenity prayer," made most famous by AA, has been trying to teach us all for a very long time.
"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference."
Acceptance. Courage. Wisdom. When I read those words they give me a lot of comfort, and make me realize how much stress, anxiety, and worry I could have spared myself over the years (heck, even over the past week!), if I'd prayed those words and taken them to heart. Sometimes, people will say the rather trite phrase "give it to God." Like, whatever my problems are, I can just hand them over to God. Yes, it's something of a platitude, but at its core that phrase is about acceptance. Surrender. A life of faith asks us to submit ourselves to God's will rather than our own will. Rohr emphasizes that this is not about giving up responsibility for our lives. He writes," Surrendering to the divine flow is not about giving up, giving in, capitulating, becoming a puppet, being naïve, being irresponsible, or stopping all planning and thinking. Surrender is about a peaceful inner opening that keeps the conduit of living water flowing. . . . Surrender is a willingness to trust that you really are a beloved [child], which allows God to be your Father" (p. 163). What if we truly accepted that a loving God, who is bigger than us, really does have us, really is working in our lives, and just allowed the flow to happen instead of kicking against it?
A couple of years ago my family and I went whitewater rafting. Some of those rapids were a little more than we expected, and on one rough patch we did not do a good job of listening to our guide's instructions to get down low in the boat. As a result, we flipped, and all went careening in different directions. I found myself fighting to get back to the surface, realized I was under the boat, panicked--it was ugly. Then I remembered him telling us, on the safety of dry land, "If you fall in, don't panic, and don't fight the current. Let it take you, and you'll pop right up to the surface." I gave in. Bloop! Popped right up, got my bearings, and was able just to stand up in the flow. That's what I think of when I hear Rohr explain the "divine flow." Surrendering to it, rather than fighting it by trying to make something happen by my own flailing around, was the key.
In the gospels, Jesus gives what I find to be strange and difficult advice: "Don't worry about your life," he says. "Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life" (Luke 12:25, CEB). Go read Luke 12:22-34 for more context. Notice he counsels specifically not to worry about the basic needs of life: food, clothing, shelter. He's not saying everything will be perfect, but he does remind us that God knows we need those basics, and I think he is trying to offer some perspective. Most of what I worry about is not the basics of life. I sometimes forget how fortunate I am to have those things, along with many other things that are blessings I take for granted each day. In one sense, it's easy for Jesus to say, "Stop worrying." It's puzzled me at times because worry feels like an emotion, and how do I stop an emotion? Maybe, though, this is where something like the serenity prayer comes in. Or a recognition of what I do have and things I can control.
Acceptance. Courage. Wisdom. Perspective. Surrender.
It's true. When it comes down to some of the biggest things in life--life itself, death, etc.--you are not in control. BUT. You can trust surrendering yourself to a God who loves you and knows what you need. You can also trust your true self (see last week's truth). And can "you by worrying can add a single moment to your life"? If we internalize Jesus' counsel before we hit rough waters, then when we do hit them it becomes much easier to remember to give ourselves over to the flow.
I'll give Rohr the last word, because he articulates is far better than I: "Ironically, when you give up your control mechanisms, you are able to live with both feet gently on the accelerator and move with the divine flow. Without all the inner voices of resistance, it is amazing how much you can get done and not get tired. . . . It is a school for the final letting go that we call death. Practice giving up control early in life. You will be much happier and much closer to the truth, to the moment, and to God--none of which can be experienced by taking control of your life" (p. 163).
"Practice giving up control early in life. You will be much happier and much closer to the truth, the moment, and to God."--Richard Rohr
The Rev. Rob Courtney
Fr. Rob is the Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church & School
We are continuing our Lenten journey through life's five hard truths. These truths are explored in more detail in Richard Rohr's book Adam's Return: The Five Promises of Male Initiation. Last week, we talked about the truth that you are not that important. This week's truth is that your life is not about you.
You may have heard me mention, perhaps on more than on occasion, that my favorite theologian is William Temple. Temple has a beautiful explanation of the doctrine of original sin that I've always appreciated and found to be true. He explains that our "original sin" is not something that is our fault, but something in which, from our very births, causes us to focus primarily on ourselves. This self-centeredness manifests itself as sin as we continually put ourselves in the place of God. He writes:
"When we open our eyes as babies we see the world stretching out around us; we are in the middle of it; all proportions and perspectives in what we see are determined by the relation—distance, height, and so forth—of the various visible objects to ourselves. This will remain true of our bodily vision as long as we live. I am the centre of the world I see; where the horizon is depends on where I stand. Now just the same thing is true at first of our mental and spiritual vision. Some things hurt us; we hope they will not happen again; we call them bad. Some things please us; we hope they will happen again; we call them good. Our standard of value is the way things affect ourselves. So each of us takes his place in the centre of his own world. But I am not the centre of the world, or the standard of reference as between good and bad; I am not, and God is. In other words, from the beginning I put myself in God’s place. This is my original sin. I was doing it before I could speak, and everyone else has been doing it from early infancy. I am not 'guilty' on this account because I could not help it. But I am in a state, from birth, in which I shall bring disaster on myself and everyone affected by my conduct unless I can escape from it. Education may make my self-centeredness less disastrous by widening my horizon of interest; so far it is like the climbing of a tower, which widens the horizon for physical vision while leaving me still the centre and standard of reference. Education may do more than this if it succeeds in winning me into devotion to truth or to beauty; that devotion may effect a partial deliverance from self-centeredness. But complete deliverance can be effected only by the winning of my whole heart’s devotion, the total allegiance of my will—and this only the Divine Love disclosed by Christ in His Life and Death can do" (Christianity and the Social Order, p. 60).
This formulation of Original Sin has always resonated with me as a very practical way of looking at the sometimes damaging doctrine of original sin. That original self-centeredness that's been with me since birth is not my fault, but it is my responsibility, with God's help, to move beyond it. A central component of the spiritual life, then, is a continual moving more and more outside of myself. An ongoing recognition that my life is not about me!
When I think back on my life as a young person, then as a younger man, I can see areas where I was not only focused primarily on myself, I was also focused on shaping myself into an image I found more pleasing. What I mean is that I lived a lot of life not being satisfied with who I am. I wanted more; wanted to be more. I tried way too hard in high school, for instance, to be "cool." Truth is I wasn't cool! I was the geek that I am, but was more concerned with fitting in than being myself. Admittedly, that is hard for most adolescents I think. With the advent of social media this has become an even more intense struggle for many people. We see people living seemingly perfect lives on our feeds and think maybe we should be living the same way. Or wondering why we aren't as beautiful, or cool, or whatever as the people we see. Wondering why our lives aren't as "together" as theirs seem to be. It's difficult not to compare ourselves and impose social standards on ourselves that may not truly fit who we are--who we were created to be.
Even as a newly ordained priest, who had become far more comfortable with myself over time, I felt a kind of pressure to conform to the way other clergy did things. "That priest does X. Maybe I should be doing that, too. That priest prays like X. Why can't I pray like that? Should I be doing it differently?" It took me a little bit to realize, through the help of a wise spiritual director, that God did not call me to be like other clergy. God called me to inhabit the role of priest as myself. God called me. God did not call me to be a clone of someone else. God wanted me to reach people in the way that I reach people--through the gifts God gave to me, as the person God created me to be.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes,
"I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. And the life I now live in my body, I live by faith, indeed by the faithfulness of God's Son, who loved me and gave himself for me."--Galatians 2:20 (CEB)
As people who believe we are created by God, in the image of God, we do not belong to ourselves. We belong to God. As Christians baptized into Christ's death and resurrection, we are united with Christ, and are growing more and more into his image. Paul also says in Colossians,
"Your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory."--Colossians 3:3-4 (CEB)
This, then, is the BUT that comes with this hard truth: your life is not about you, but you are about life. As we deepen our spiritual lives, it's not like Christ subsumes us into some formless personality. It's not that we suddenly have to become someone we are not. Instead, we discover that to live a Christian life all we have to do is to truly live as the people God made us to be. We become more ourselves as we begin to shift our focus outwardly, and to become life-giving, life-affirming persons. Richard Rohr says, "Great people do not need to concoct an identity for themselves; they merely need to discover, uncover, and enjoy the life they already have. . . . My destiny and [God's] desire are already written in my genes, my upbringing, and my natural gifts. It is probably the most courageous thing you will ever do to accept that you are just yourself" (Adam's Return, p. 158).
"It is probably the most courageous thing you will ever do to accept that you are just yourself."--Richard Rohr
Rohr points out that the famous theologian Henri Nouwen "believed that original sin could only be described as 'humanity's endless capacity for self-rejection'" (p. 159). Paired with Temple's conception of Original Sin, you could say that focusing exclusively on ourselves is, ironically, a kind of self-rejection! The spiritual life then is something of a paradox in that your life becomes precisely about you only when you come to know and understand who (and whose) you really are (p. 160-1).
What do you find difficult to accept about yourself? How does it feel to think of yourself as not being your own, but rather belonging to God? Perhaps all of us could find true freedom by realizing that "your life is not about you, but you are about life." Remember last week's post as you think about this--God does not love us for what we accomplish, but loves us intrinsically as exactly the person God created us to be.