Today's sermon deals with perhaps the most puzzlingly profound paradox of all Jesus' sayings. With this single pronouncement Jesus points the way toward a truly potent spirituality, and provides one of the most effective strategies I know of for creating a happy life here on earth.
24Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.
25For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.
26For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?
34And when he had called the people unto him with his disciples also, he said unto them, Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.
35For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's, the same shall save it.
36For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?
37Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?
23And he said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.
24For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it.
25For what is a man advantaged, if he gain the whole world, and lose himself, or be cast away?
Last week's sermon pondered the question, "Who am I?" We used Jesus' identification of Himself as the Messiah, prophesied in scripture, to infer the possibility that we all can become "Sons of God" if we simply lose ourselves in the binding arms of divine love. Today, we look at the leading obstacle barring our path to this end--the self.
The paradox of self arises from the illusions that the flesh of our bodies is somehow essentially who we are. I think Jesus is always warning us to take care what we think, because our thoughts betray us into believing the hypnotic dog and pony show of carnal knowledge. Clearly, the most intimate carnal knowledge we can have is of ourselves, trapped, as it were, in our physical bodies; our bodies are always sending messages to our brains about what is true, what is real. Little did we know when we first started out in, life what a big fat dumb muscle our brains are. Little did we suspect that there were sensitivities in the makeup of our conscious apparatus capable of detecting sensations far finer yet more real than anything information our brains can glean from our faulty, unreliable senses. Little did we know that when we learned to talk, and later, when we learned to read, that all these words, rambling around in out brains would lead us to accept the reality of an ego structure that is totally fictional, totally irrational, and completely impermanent.
The main argument Jesus makes in His paradox is that: who we think we are is not who we really are; that to put our trust in this false self, invented by worldly experience and worldly syntax, is an investment in failure.
It was really fun researching this subject because there were SO MANY quotes to choose from. You won't believe this, but I did actually have to pare them down.
At the age-of-the-sage.org website, I found this cute little Zen story:
"A University Professor went to see Nan-in, a Zen Master, to find out more about Zen. As their meeting continued Nan-in was pouring Tea and continued to pour even though the cup was overflowing. The Professor cried. "Enough! No more will go in!" Nan-in replied "Like this cup you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?""
This section from Aldous Huxley's Knowledge and Understanding focuses on the problem of trying to arrive at a self-summary with verbal structures:
"The nature of a conditioned reflex is such that, when the bell rings, the dog salivates, when the much worshiped image is seen, or the much repeated credo, litany or mantram is pronounced, the heart of the believer is filled with reverence and his mind with faith. And this happens regardless of the content of the phrase repeated, the nature of the image to which obeisance has been made. He is not responding spontaneously to given reality; he is responding to some thing, or word, or gesture, which automatically brings into play a previously installed post-hypnotic suggestion. Meister Eckhart, that acutest of religious psychologists, clearly recognized this fact. “He who fondly imagines to get more of God in thoughts, prayers, pious offices and so forth than by the fireside or in the stall in sooth he does but take God, as it were, and swaddle His head in a cloak and hide Him under the table. For he who seeks God in settled forms lays hold of the form, while missing the God concealed in it. But he who seeks God in no special guise lays hold of him as He is in Himself, and such an one lives with the Son and is the life itself.” “If you look for the Buddha, you will not see the Buddha.” “If you deliberately try to become a Buddha, your Buddha is samsara.” “If a person seeks the Tao, that person loses the Tao.” “By intending to bring yourself into accord with Suchness, you instantly deviate.” “Whosoever will save his life shall lose it.”
There is a Law of Reversed Effort. The harder we try with the conscious will to do something, the less we shall succeed. Proficiency and the results of proficiency come only to those who have learned the paradoxical art of simultaneously doing and not doing, of combining relaxation with activity, of letting go as a person in order that the immanent and transcendent Unknown Quantity may take hold. We cannot make ourselves understand; the most we can do is to foster a state of mind, in which understanding may come to us."
Huxley is suggesting a technique of letting go that will invite divine inspiration into our consciousness. There are many such techniques, all with a single purpose--to let God rise from the depths of our inner selves to the tip of verbal consciousness where it may be apprehended by our brains. How we become inspired by this divine intervention must necessarily be a very personal procedure, but, as in all things, practice makes perfect. A newspaper interviewer once asked William Faulkner this question: "Mr. Faulkner, do you write every day, or just when the spirit moves you?" Faulkner replied, "Just when the spirit moves me, but the spirit moves me every day."
Some years ago, in line with this idea, I wrote this poem:
I. An Average Ecstasie
All we know of ecstacy
Springs to mind amid the myriad privacies
Of passion's inner whirling gale--
It is jubilantly revealed not in the pale
But by sun-like bright
Fires raging in a solitary afternoon.
All there is of love we read
In secret. In the provinces we publish our plea
(in great white HOLLYWOOD letters)
For an outward sign, but our betters
The rest is bogus--
Vanity all--except the heart's internal boon.
Yet this high-toned exclusivity
Is not a complex gothic mystery
Obfuscated in cloudy gauze;
No, in this, the Prime Mover, First Cause,
We are seeing
The very being
Whose Will made it possible for us to climax so soon;
Whose normal, natural, rhythmic decree
Is a disciplined, average ecstacy.
Thus, the inner Man, the soul of Man, is not revealed to him through the effort of good works, but as a gift of grace, that he predisposes himself to receive, by ALLOWING himself to become an open vessel. By allowing superconscious sensitivities in his higher, supercarnal nature to detect and affirm his true spiritual identity. The life we lose when we do this is not our true life but a counterfeit foisted on us by original sin; the life we gain by losing the false one is worth more than all the gold in the world; the gold is temporary, the soul is forever.
But oh how we cling to these false definitions of who we are! In C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce we are given a fictional description of a bus that drops off a crew of discarnate souls at a crossroads. Some go on to heaven and some hang around burrowing into a sad and empty hell, by refusing to let go of their old carnal selves. In his, A Discussion on The Great Divorce, Lynn Johnson comments:
"The ghosts have done the exact opposite of “let him deny himself”. Here (and I suspect in life) everything is about himself for these ghosts. The ghosts have found a way to save their old lives by hanging on to worldly habits, inhibitions, and things. And the result is they have lost everything as they use these things to create Hell."
In his great book, Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis states:
"To become new men means losing what we now call "ourselves." Out of ourselves, into Christ, we must go. His will is to become ours and we are to think His thoughts, to "have the mind of Christ" [1 Corinthians 2:16]. . . . The more we get what we now call "ourselves" out of the way and let Him take us over, the more truly ourselves we become. . . .
Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favourite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will ever be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in."
Such a deal! And the thing you give up is SO worthless, if you could only get over the initial attachment. Giving up things, and habits, and ideas is so hard at first, but they are so easily got rid of if you can only hang in there. I tell a story to my violin students about The Land Where Everybody Walked With a Cane, to illustrate how to stop gripping the violin:
"Once upon a time, in a far country high up in the faraway mountains, there was a land where everybody walked with a cane. The reason they walked with a cane is unclear: maybe there was an old grandfather in their distant past whom they imitated out of respect, or perhaps it had started out as a disguise against foreign invaders. Anyway, for centuries, in this isolated country the people had all walked with canes. The little toddlers had their baby canes, then they graduated to their kindergarten canes, their middle school, high school, and college canes, and then their walking-down-the-aisle- to-get-married canes. They never thought about it because this is how they had always done it, and life went on with everybody hobbling around leaning on a stick.
One day an explorer appeared on the horizon, lost in the mountains, and strode down into their little world on two feet. They took him in, fed him, befriended him, and tried to give him a cane since they noticed he didn't have one. He told them, "Thank you very much, I don't need a cane, and by the way why are you all leaning on them?"
They didn't quite know what to say, since no one had ever asked this question before. "Well, uh, gee, we, uh, always walk with our canes, we can't walk without our canes, if God had meant us to walk without canes He would have given us three legs, we can't walk without our canes, WE CAN'T WALK WITHOUT OUR CANES!"
Well, this explorer wasn't buying it: so one night while they were all asleep, he crept into everybody's room, grinch-like, and stole all their canes. When they woke up in the morning, they had to crawl out of bed and struggle to the street on wobbly legs to discover the meaning of this catastrophe. There in the square stood the explorer standing before a great bonfire, where a great pile of canes was cheerfully crackling up in smoke. The people were enraged, they were hysterical, they were petrified.
But as they approached the fire to try to save some of their equipment, somebody noticed, "Hey, we're walking!" "Hey, we're walking without our canes!" From a wobbly perspective they looked around and saw each other for the first time standing upright on two legs with both hands free. It took a moment, but in almost no time all they were dancing, and prancing, and striding about the square on unencumbered happy feet, free at last!"
Now these people from Caneland were not stupid, they were just responding to what they considered to be a legitimate need; their mistake was in fulfilling that need with a carnal answer. If they had simply been able to look past the superficial need to a deeper need (the need for freedom?) they might have stumbled (ha ha) onto a more reasonable solution without the aid of an outsider. The need to know ourselves, to rip off the disguise of material illusion, is the primary objective of mundane existence, and we will do anything we can to achieve that end--we just turn to the wrong sources for answers. We turn to our outer selves for the secrets of our inner nature, when the illuminating love of God dwells so deeply within it takes the effort of NON-EFFORT to get at it. We NEED GOD but we can't create God--that's already been seen to. He comes when the door is open.
in The New Theology p. 20, R. J. Campbell writes:
"The life of God is such that in the presence of need it must give itself just as water will run down hill; this is the law of its being. Where no need exists, that is, where life is infinite, love finds no expression. To realise itself for what it is, sacrifice, that is self-limitation, becomes necessary. Love is essentially self-giving. It is the living of the individual life in terms of the whole. In a finite world this cannot but mean pain, but it is also self-fulfilment. "Whosoever shall save his life shall lose it, but whosoever will lose his life shall find it." This profound saying of Jesus is older even than Jesus; it is the law of God's own being, the law of love, the means to the realisation of the life eternal. It is so plain and simple, and withal so sublime, that we cannot but see it to be true, and can do no other than bow before it. The law of the universe is the law of sacrifice in order to self-manifestation. In this age-long process all sentient life has its part, for it is of the infinite, and to the infinite it will return."
The following is a collection of famous quotes from the CowPi Journal:
— from Joseph Campbell's Hero of a Thousand Faces:
“Whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.” The meaning is very clear; it is the meaning of all religious practice. The individual, through prolonged psychological disciplines, gives up completely all attachment to his personal limitations, idiosyncrasies, hopes and fears, no longer resists the self-annihilation that is prerequisite to rebirth in the realization of truth, and so becomes ripe, at last, for the great at-one-ment. His personal ambitions being totally dissolved, he no longer tries to live but willingly relaxes to whatever may come to pass in him; he becomes, that is to say, an anonymity."
— Meister Eckhart
"God is at his greatest when I am at my least."
— Albert Einstein
"A human being is a part of the whole that we call the universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical illusion of his consciousness. This illusion is a prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for only the few people nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living beings and all of nature."
— Yatri (Kathryn Taussig, the world’s foremost Glass Armonica musician in the genre of New Age and healing music.)
"The conventional ego, the false passport, is built up from an edited picture album of our past. The version often seems more real than we are in the present moment. That is because here/now we are in constant flux and flow, but what we have been is nicely and securely fixed.
The false identity is frozen throughout time, a final static noun. And just because it is unchanging we become more clearly identified with that identity card than we do with the real living, moment-to-moment entity.
In order to support the new false self we have to become more and more identified with the past, with old knowledge and a fixed belief system which continue to bolster up our historical selves. And we forget there was ever anything else.
Man becomes a historical animal preoccupied with the past and the future, and here we encounter the strangest of paradoxes. The historical idea of self, the ego, requires a constant re-living of memories in order to sustain a continuity of its own. It is only aware of itself as a repeatedly up-dated autobiography. The ego does not actually exist—it is an illusion of continuity."
Once again we are led back to a consideration of time--time the great perverter of all spiritual sensations, the great pantheon of smoke and mirrors, the test the God has given us to overcome. As an aspie I am more than usually (normally) convicted by the illusory safety net of sequential conceptuality. Overcoming the need for things to make rational sense has been my life's greatest challenge, and I consider my abandonment of the prison if time as my greatest life accomplishment. The day I was gifted with the insight necessary to look beyond the ordering of experience into neat little boxes to perceive the magnificent vastness of myself is my true birthday--it was on that day that I was born again. And I know that without Jesus I couldn't have done it. Jesus says, "whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it."
I've talked a lot today about the self, its limitations, and its possibilities in the limitless horizons of eternity, but let's not forget the man from a far country who came to Caneland and set them free. The teacher is needed. The teacher is necessary. It is Jesus who mediates for us with the Father--it is HE who opens the doors of perception and allows the heavenly light to flood our dumb little brains with truth illuminated by heavenly love.
Let us pray: Jesus we are daily humbled by your constant intercession on our behalf. We send prayers of thanksgiving to you, ceaselessly, that the outpouring of grace that flows from Your beneficent Being shall continue to carry us upward and inward. Amen.
August 7, 2011