Friday, July 23, 2010

It's (Not) My Life

It’s (Not) My Life
Col. 1:15-20[1]
I think perhaps one of the most destructive myths to define our lives is the notion that “it’s my life, I’ll live how I want.” Despite the fact that the vast majority of us live that way, it is a formula for life that pretty much completely undermines all chance of real happiness. When we live from the standpoint of “it’s my life,” we have to define who we are in competition with others. Our stubborn insistence on living as if “it’s my life” leads us to the foolish thinking that if I’m going to win somebody’s got to lose. And that kind of win-lose scenario means everybody loses.[2] The real truth of our existence is that we were made to live in community with God’s whole creation, which means we were made for a higher purpose than “it’s my life.”
If we have eyes to see them, we’re living with two very obvious demonstrations of the fact that “it’s my life” doesn’t work. The first is the global economic meltdown. It was triggered in part by the fact that banks gave mortgages to people who had no business buying their “dream house.” It was also caused by the fact that just about every bank out there was trying to “hedge” their loans by dumping some of the risk on somebody else. When the whole thing came crashing down, it was all too easy for us to point the accusing finger at the financial industry, but the reality is that we’re all responsible. As author Parker Palmer puts it, “Who doesn’t know that an economic system that encourages us to live beyond our means and refuses to regulate greed is one in which our avarice will come back to bite us?”[3] If you doubt that we’re all responsible for the collapse, take a look at your own spending habits. If you’re like me, unless you’re one of the people who have lost your home and livelihood, your spending habits haven’t changed much.
The other very obvious demonstration that “it’s my life” doesn’t word is the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. Despite the fact that BP appears to have stopped the well, we still have thousands of barrels of oil poisoning the Gulf of Mexico and habitats from Texas to Florida. I don’t even like getting a few drops of gasoline on my hands when I fill up—think of having a coating of heavy crude over pretty much everything around you! We can point the finger at BP or at their partners in this country, or at the federal government, but once again the reality here is that we are all responsible. Again, if you doubt that, ask yourself whether this catastrophe has lessened your use of gasoline. Here is a disaster that has not only destroyed whole swaths of the natural environment, but also thousands of lives all up and down the Gulf Coast. And will continue to wreak havoc around the Gulf of Mexico in other countries for months if not years to come. Yet, as awful as it is, it hasn’t really lessened my consumption of the nasty stuff!
These are two very stark illustrations of what happens when we think we can just go on living as if “it’s my life.” In our lesson from Colossians for today, St. Paul reminds us that we were made for something different. He reminds us that we were literally made for Christ; we were made to live our lives in service to others. [4] The perspective St. Paul takes on human existence is one defined by the conviction that we are part of “the whole” (Col. 1:16, 17).[5] This implies that we were made to live our lives in loving relationship with God and others. We are part of a community that includes not only the whole human family, but also the whole of creation. And if we doubt that’s the case, then St. Paul also reminds us that we were restored to wholeness in Christ (Col. 1:20). So not only were we made for community, but we were also “re-made” through Jesus Christ for community with God’s whole creation.[6] In a very real sense, this means that “it’s not my life to do with as I please.”
This means that we can no longer do what the people of Israel did so long ago—enslaving the poor for silver and trading the needy for a pair of sandals (Amos 8:6). [7] If we take seriously the conviction that we were made—and “re-made”—to live in community with God’s whole creation, then we must always ask ourselves “what effect does my lifestyle have on others?” [8] For some this will be oppressive and confining. For others, it will be liberating. When we live out of the perspective that we are accepted by God—completely, unconditionally, irrevocably—then we can be freed from the need to find meaning and value to our lives by competing with others in a win-lose game. Then we can find true freedom though giving ourselves away in love; then we can find fulfillment through living in community with God’s whole creation.

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/11/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] As sociologist Robert Wright observes, “the world seems to be set up in such a way that either humans make moral progress in the sense of expanding their conception of compassion and love more broadly or they pay the price of social chaos and collapse. Interview with Krista Tippet, “The Evolution of God,” broadcast on Speaking of Faith March 4, 2010; see http://speakingoffaith.public
[3] Parker Palmer, “Trusting Our Deeper Knowing: On Cataclysms, Contemplation, and Circles of Trust,” accessed at 2009/rv-palmer/palmer-deeper_knowing.shtml; this essay was discussed in an Interview by Krista Tippett, “Repossessing Virtue: Parker Palmer on Economic Crisis, Morality and Meaning,” broadcast on Speaking of Faith July 23, 2009; see .
[4] Cf. A. T. Lincoln, “The Letter to the Colossians,” New Interpreter’s Bible XI:570: Christ “is the one to who all creation is directed, the very purpose of its existence”; of course, I think on one level we can take that at face value, but at another level we have to unpack what it means that Christ is the “very purpose” for the existence of all things.
[5] He uses the phrase ta panta, which in Greek literature referred to the whole cosmos; cf. Bo Reicke, “pas in the NT,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament V:893-96; A. T. Lincoln, Ephesians, 34.
[6] Cf. Lincoln, “Colossians,” New Interpreter’s Bible XI:610-11: “If reconciliation of all things in Christ is at the center of God’s purposes, then the pursuit of peace and acts of reconciliation by Christians serve these purposes.” In fact, he says that this means that “the most urgent task of Christians is to play their part in making the church a place of healing for broken relationships, where divisions caused by class, race, wealth, education, age, gender, nationality, or religious tradition are overcome, and an agent of peace and justice in situations of conflict, whether in the home or the workplace, at the national or the international level.” Elsewhere Lincoln comments on a similar phrase in Eph. 1:10, God’s “ordering of history focuses on Christ and involves the bringing together of everything in the universe into a state of harmony in Christ.” See Lincoln, Ephesians, 42. Cf. similarly Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 274-286: “the church prefigures and foreshadows the temple of the Holy Spirit which the whole cosmos is destined to become” (276). He says that the ultimate goal of NT Christology is “a reconciled, Christ-pervaded cosmos” (278).
[7] Cf. Terence E. Fretheim, “The Prophets and Social Justice: a ConservativeWord and World 28 (Spring 2008): 159-168. Agenda,” in
[8] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 85, 106-108, 164-74, where he discusses the idea that the church is to be the “social form of hope” and the initial demonstration of “the world as it is changed in the Kingdom of God,” (164) which includes how we live our lives in terms of economics, politics, and culture. Regarding the former, he says that a commitment to Christian faith “includes turning away from the lethal tendencies inherent in our present economy and towards a life which overcomes death” (173). Among other things, Moltmann suggests that this means Christians must “choose the path that leads away from the ruthless satisfaction of demands to community.”

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