Self-Centered to Serve:
Self-Centered to Serve:
From Selfish Self-Centeredness to Self-Centeredly Informed Service for Others
Ralph Blair’s Keynote for connECtion2014
At the time, it was called the “greatest single event in human history”. That was in 1964. Guess what it was! If you were born in 1964 – that wasn’t it. Since it was only 50 years ago, you can be sure that it was not the “greatest single event in human history”.
With 1964 came The Civil Rights Act and The Great Society. In Berkeley, the Free Speech Movement was launched – long since gagged by ever-restrictive speech codes. In 1964, 76 percent of us trusted government to do the right thing “just about always or most of the time.” Today, 19 percent do. Both Sarah Palin and Michelle Obama were born in 1964. The Beatles arrived for their first tour in America as Broadway welcomed Funny Girl and Hello Dolly. Then, instead of fixating on genitalia as antigay clergy do today, a great evangelical theologian, Helmut Thielicke, affirmed: “Very certainly [homosexuality is] a search for the totality of the other human being. He who says otherwise has not yet observed the possible human depth of a homoerotic-colored friendship.” Thielicke urged, a la Jesus’ parable that we think of it “as a talent to be invested so that the homosexual in his actual situation can achieve the optimal ethical potential of sexual self-realization.”
But none of these was what was called, at the time, the “greatest single event in human history.” So, what do you think it was?
Here’s my self-centered focus. In 1964, I got my MA from USC, got my first full-time job on IVCF staff at Penn, and was soon told I’d not be reappointed since I was advocating evangelical support for same-sex couples. Those were surely milestones in my life and pointed to my life’s calling, but, to label any of them, the “greatest single event in human history”, would make no sense at all.
The “greatest single event in human history!” That’s how Moses hyped it. Robert Moses, that is. That’s how this big New York powerbroker styled his 1964 New York World’s Fair. How’s that for self-centered praise in need of some perspective?
Arrogance was his daily demeanor. His biographer’s summation: “He developed his public authorities into a political machine that was virtually a fourth branch of government, one that could bring to their knees Governors and Mayors … by mobilizing banks, contractors, labor unions, insurance firms, even the press and the Church [i.e., Cardinal Spellman]. Moses built an empire and lived like an emperor. … Without ever having been elected to office, he dominated the men who were – even his most bitter enemy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, could not control him.” (Robert Caro)
It was Moses’ claim that the Fair’s purpose was “Peace Through Understanding”. But, as was his wont, he’d seized his power over the Fair through what another writer termed a “sleight-of-hand coup d’etat and much political intrigue”. (Joseph Tirella)
With some psychological insight into self-centeredness, we can see that it’s not strange that a man with such an outsized public persona, at odds with his experienced sense of self and consequent self-doubts, had a felt need to brag that this project of his was “the greatest single event in human history”.
The more dismissively arrogant one is on the outside, the more of an “outsider” he or she senses on the inside. We brag about a wished-for self, while experiencing a sense of self we wish we weren’t. Self-centeredness is a sign of self-doubt, a posturing of self-esteem. But, posturing only reinforces the self-doubt that the bragger can’t stand. So braggers become beggars for affirmation. Yet no amount of acclaim is ever enough since they continue to mistake their subjective sense of self for others’ sense of them. Distracted by self-centered self-doubt, they fail to note that those they try to impress are preoccupied with their own self-centered self-doubt and can’t be bothered with another’s self-doubt. All the beggars’ efforts are foiled by not being able to control the opinions of others while stuck with no effective control over their own.
Now, arrogance isn’t the only defense mechanism among the self-centered. Some wear their self-doubt on their sleeves. They moan about not measuring up so as to elicit predictable responses of encouragement. Yet, stuck in their self-centered opinions of themselves, they’re not open to such encouragement. After a while, encouragers aren’t open to any more of their moaning. This, then, they interpret as proof they don’t measure up. But all it proves is that those who bad-mouth themselves are just as self-centered as the loudmouth braggers.
Getting back to the Fair for a moment, America had just had Seattle’s 1962 World’s Fair with its spectacular revolving Space Needle and Century 21 Exposition – itself, a four-decade stretch into hyperbole. And in spite of Moses’ reigning over so much public space, his so-called “New York” World’s Fair really wasn’t even in New York. It was out there in Flushing! Queens!
Now, in the spirit of that defensively snobbish little put-down of an outer borough, I ask you: Who among us has not acted out (in the clinical sense of that term) as if we, ourselves, constitute the “greatest single event in human history”? And, far from apologizing for that, these days we tweet it ad nauseam.
Oh, did I mention that America celebrated two big World’s Fairs in 1939, the year I was born? Just sayin’!
The Oxford English Dictionary’s latest “Word of the Year”, is “selfie”. A recent New Yorker cartoon shows a street artist about to sketch a portrait of a young woman. She tells him: “Make it look like a selfie.”
Early this month, New York magazine’s cover feature reported breathlessly on what it called, “The Weird Wide World of Internet Celebrity”. It’s about what’s called, the latest “kind of fame”. It’s centered on “a collection of pretend pop stars with zero radio play, but YouTube fans in the tens of millions, to sell out stadiums on the DigiTour.” Of course, these “events” aren’t real events in real stadiums. As it’s explained: “It’s a total rethinking of how to be a celebrity. Only now we don’t need paparazzi for access to their intimate moments … the internet-famous are happy to supply it all themselves.” Of course, right there is their own entrapment.
Now, as we smirk over silly examples of self-centeredness, let’s not lose sight of the fact that, while looking down our noses and rolling our eyes over others, we can blind ourselves to our own self-centeredness – though not to our own self-doubts. And the self-centeredly sensed self-doubts are all the more troubling as we self-centeredly misinterpret them as being the opinions that others have of us. Meanwhile, our own cover-ups remind us of the self-doubts for which we launch our cover-ups. Therefore, our self-centeredness is, indeed, a deep, dark pit of self-defeating self-pity, pretense and petulance.
So, self-centeredness is no joke. It’s deadly. Even suicides self-centeredly intend to be self-serving and nearly twice as many Americans kill themselves with a gun as kill someone else with a gun. The spin on the self-centered Isla Vista murders/suicide has been self-servingly all about the spinners – a poster for everyone’s own pet peeve or plot. Even unintentionally, self-centeredness kills. An anesthesiologist posted personal messages on Facebook while monitoring a patient during heart surgery. The patient died.
Self-centeredness has been deadly since Eden. Many secularists haven’t the foggiest notion of what that sentence means and, sadly, many don’t give a damn. They’ve been inoculated against the biblical narrative by self-centered religionists who themselves seem not to have the foggiest notion of the real biblical narrative.
Though the aim of self-centeredness is to fit in, self-centeredness alienates. The more the self-centered try to make others tune into them, the more the others tune them out. There’s precious little room at the center for self-centered competition.
The National Science Foundation reports that Americans are experiencing increased “social isolation” and “a very significant decrease in social connections to close friends and family”.
The Internet promised escape from loneliness into a “virtual” worldwide community. But shouldn’t we understand that “virtual” signifies simulated, artificial even make-believe? Besides, self-centeredness infects the Internet as it does everything else since the logged-on are people, and as such, self-centered. Updating Twitter followers, Facebook friends and YouTube fans tends to keep our focus on ourselves. Spinning for affirmation, we’re distracted by self-doubts and so we get even more self-consciously anxious. With anonymous access to a blog, we clog it with self-righteous rants of self-centeredness. Dating sites often offer little more than “hook-ups”. Sexting excites – before it backfires. All this venting and voyeurism intensifies a sense of separation and isolation. With all the technology, we fail to really connect, for mere technology cannot overcome self-centeredness.
What’s worse, self-centeredness turns us away from God, who is Life, Himself. Consequently, self-centeredness separates us from the selves that God lovingly meant us to be together.
We were meant for loving communion with our Creator and loving companionship with one another. We’re not meant for self, alone. Yet, we think and act as if meaning is wrapped up in us.
When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment, he summed up all the Law and Prophets as a call to love God and each other. (John 12:30f) God’s love calls forth our love. We’re loved into loving. Here’s Augustine’s prayerful praise of God’s love: “You have made us for rest in You, and we’re restless until we do.” Rest in God puts to rest so much self-centeredness.
Self-centeredness drugs us into mistaking ourselves for the center, pretending self-sufficiency in the face of the only Self-sufficient One, the only Self-existent One. None else is, in self, sufficient. None else exists of self. God, Himself, is the Source, the Center. But, instead of self-centeredness writ large, God is Love! And God is such Love that He selflessly gave of Himself, in the body of Christ, for the salvation of a self-centered world.
Self-centeredness is fear-based and all fear fixates on the future. But God is The Eternal “I AM”. The One who is Love, Himself, is “from everlasting to everlasting”. (Ps 103:17) As the psalmist says: “God, in His loving kindness shall meet us at every corner”. (Ps 59:10) When we get there, He’s already there. Jesus Christ is “the same yesterday, today, and forever”. (Heb 13:8) He said: “I am always with you, to the end of time.” (Matt 28:20) Paul wrote: “It was God, not you, who began a good work in you, and He who began it, will complete it.” (Phil 1:6)
Seeking, in ourselves, to be the center, we’re stuck with us. We’re not open to God’s love. So, we can’t afford to love as Jesus invites us to. We can afford to love only in the peace and joy of an awareness that we are loved. Spinning our wheels in self-centered schemes at self-esteem, to which, of course, no one else ever signs on, we’re left all alone to lick our self-inflicted wounds and rage against “them”. Thus, we make an even bigger mess, since those against whom we rage, predictably resent our raging and they then, predictably, not only refuse to join our pity party against them, but they retaliate against us.
Our self-centeredness, since it is, as I said, fear-based, aims at safety – as we imagine safety. Do we ever land in that fantasy of safety? We can’t. Is true safety even available? It is.
There’s a lot of agitation these days about the need for “safe space” – in classrooms, on the web, at church, in “our movement” and so on. Yet most of us have no personal experience with the really overwhelming dangers that are the everyday experience of millions around the world. In our daily lives, unless we’ve been to war, we’ve not been kept awake, night after night, dreading armed enemy forces. We’ve never been at the mercy of Gestapo, KGB or Boko Haram. We’ve never been imprisoned in slave labor camps, suffering hunger, fatigue and crippling effects of months, even years, of physical, sexual and mental abuse with no end in view.
Yet, in the relative safety of our daily lives, we hold ourselves hostage to fantasies of unreasonably defined safety, unreasonable levels of circumstantial control. When others say or do something we don’t like, we take offense and get upset over what is, after all, but their perception, their self-doubt, their defensiveness, in short, their self-centeredness. Evaluations are the stories of evaluators, not the evaluated. So, if we take offense, isn’t that our story, not theirs, and we need to examine what we’re telling ourselves.
Politically correct policy now mandates that there be “trigger warnings” for college students who might get themselves upset over something in a reading assignment or class discussion. It’s said that “safe space” must be assured so that university students won’t be exposed to “racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism and other issues of privilege and oppression.” (Office of Equity Concerns, Oberlin College). Strange how a trigger warning, itself, wouldn’t trigger fear in such fragile folk! Pushing back against the earnestly ridiculous infantilizing of young adults is a bold feminist at The Nation, no Right-wing rag. She says: “When I see trigger warnings, I don’t feel safe. I don’t feel protected. Instead, I am surprised there are still people who believe in safety and protection despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.” (Roxane Gay)
Originally, we were all intended for the very safest space of all – in loving communion with Sovereign Love. But, self-centered efforts to make ourselves, in and of ourselves, safe apart from God, rips us away from the only true safety there is. Whenever we try to concoct safety in terms of our own expectations, we run into unintended negative consequences. It’s only within the wise and sovereign Will of Love Himself that we can know that there are no unintended negative consequences. Jesus warned us that, in this world, we would have trouble, but, he assured us, “Have courage, for I have overcome this world.” (John 16:33)
Desperate for safe connections, we conjure up a counterfeit community in place of lost connections with God and one another. We label the construct “identity politics”, “our club”, “our crowd”, “our denomination”, “the gay community” whatever. But our self-centered expectations are so self-centered, that, in the company of other self-centered members who have their own self-centered expectations, we don’t have and we won’t have what we so self-centeredly intended to have. Neither will they. So we gripe about each other and the group breaks up. We don’t fit into each other’s self-centered agendas – even among “our kind” so-called. There’s simply no escape from self-centered isolation.
Me, me, me doesn’t mean community. Me, myself and I is not a relationship.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF “OUR” COMMUNITY
Even the terms used to identify one’s identity group can be disruptive and isolating both inside and outside whatever we call “our” community.
In the 1950s, efforts on behalf of those who, today, insist we’re “queer”, was a bit camouflaged as the “homophile” movement – phileo is a Greek word for love. It was a little less obvious than the in-you-face “homosexual”. But they were mocked as just a bunch of “homos” and “queers” no matter what they called themselves.
Later, it became the gay movement, then the GLBT movement, then G and L were reversed and T transitioned from “transsexual” to “transgender”. Eventually, Qs for “queer” and “questioning” were added and “Gay Pride” became simply, “Pride”, to avoid exclusion. Still, as in the old homophile movement, the newer groups split apart, there were insults, lies, lawsuits, self-serving aggrandizing and character assassination. What got in the way of what was intended as our community, our cause? What else? Self-centered demands that things go my way got in our way!
Today’s movement expands its selective diversity to include ambiphilia, androgyny, gynephilia, two-spirit, cisgendered, postgendered, post-binary, pansexual, pangendered, queer heterosexuality, etc. This metastasizing of approved labels can be described, if not diagnosed, as self-centeredness run amok. The University of Colorado’s tellingly titled “Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy” quips: “Gay marriage represents the right wing of sexual politics.” (Steven Hayward) There’s hardly any limit in the acceding to demands for inclusion.
I say “hardly any limit” since there is a limit to inclusion of any who don’t tow the politically correct line and are judged to be “judgmental”, e.g., pro-life lesbians, gay Republicans, lesbian and gay supporters of folks who cannot conscientiously provide commercial services for same-sex weddings, strugglers committed by conscience to celibacy and gay folks who’re profiled as “hateful” because they don’t think it right to boycott Chick-fil-A.
When Queerty reported this month’s prison release of Michael Alig who, in 1996, murdered and dismembered a fellow gay Club Scene Kid, one reader wrote: “I wold [sic] much rather read about Michael Alig than gay Christians.” Said another: “At least he didn’t find jesus while in prison.” Neither “Christian” nor “Jesus” was capitalized and no one registered objection to these comments.
Over four decades, EC has argued against the antigay positions of conservative Christians, speaking their language as few can do. But the LGBT elite has no use for allies who are evangelical.
Of course, over all that time, the evangelical establishment, too, has ignored us, not wanting to let their constituency know that a number of leading evangelicals of the 20th-century and since have been EC keynoters and supporters.
When anyone reminds us of what troubles us or when we see in others what we can’t stand in us, we can’t stand the others. But, instead of resolving our defensiveness, we make the other a stand-in for what we can’t stand in ourselves. Refusing to identify with our fellow fallen human beings, we reinforce our sense of “us” against “them” and the result of that is “us” without “them”, still sitting in a cell of self-centered, solitary confinement, locked from within.
Well, on a lighter note, back in 1974, in National Gay Task Force days, we’d organized the first International Gay Rights Congress at the University of Edinburgh. When we arrived in London for the train to Edinburgh we found that British Rail had put signs in the windows of the cars we’d reserved. The signs read: “Reserved for the National Gray Task Force”.
While wearing our Gay Rights Congress buttons on walkabouts in Edinburgh – to escape the bickering back at the Congress – a few of us came upon expressions of astonishment: “Are you guys poofs?” We said we were and these chaps seemed really shocked.
We were in Edinburgh in days just before Christmas, so, back at the B&B where some of us stayed, the elderly host who with his wife seemed to have no clue that we were “poofs”, chatted us up, expressing his pleasure at our being in town while Princes Street was ablaze in all the “fairy lights”.
THE STUPIDITY OF SELF-CENTEREDNESS
A few years ago, I preached a sermon at City Church on how the “seven deadly sins” are seven deadly stupidities. Envy, greed, lust, pride, gluttony, sloth and anger are stupid attempts to get what we don’t need while rejecting the gifts we’ve received. Having been loved into this adventure called life, we slip into fantasy that blinds us to reality. It’s expressed in envy, greed and lust for delusions and rationalized in pride that settles for mere gluttony and sloth. No wonder our self-centeredness breeds resentment, hostility even violence when our fantasies, inevitably, remain unfulfilled.
All the trouble begins in the delusion of a selfish self-reliance that refuses to rely on God’s reliable love. And that’s the essence of original sin. That’s why self-centeredness is no joke?
Remaining isolated in counterproductive pride and angry blame games, we refuse to admit, in the words of the old black gospel blues: “If I should die and my soul be lost, it’s nobody’s fault but mine.” That haunting dirge has been rendered by Blind Willie Johnson, Willie Nelson, Nina Simone, Nina Hagen and there’s even a version by Led Zeppelin: “Trying to save my soul tonight with a monkey on my back, if I should die and my soul be lost, it’s nobody’s fault but mine.”
But even that’s too self-centered. We’re far too lost to save our souls. Promises of self-improvement don’t pan out. Plans for utopia go nowhere. Yet there’s no end to self-centered solutions for what we claim ails us – and them! And we don’t know any better than to repeat the mistakes of the past. If we ever do wise up, it’s too late to undo the damage done by quick fixes that were quick but fixed nothing. Still, it’s nobody’s fault but ours.
Ben Franklin said: “Half the world doesn’t know how the other half lives.” Self-centeredness has that effect. How others live – how others lived – gets filtered through fragmented and falsified data, unexamined assumptions, caricature, prejudice and all sorts of other sources of self-serving distortion. Ignoring the truth of history and human nature, we’re polarized by narrow-mindedness as we inquire into the echo chambers of our choice. And old Ben’s observation proves to be an understatement.
A sociologist warns Christian readers: “Neither the imago Dei nor original sin is the exclusive property of any race, gender, or nation, but it does not follow that people are essentially all alike. … We are formed by cultures that go down to the bone, and so different that we too often misread what people from other places take for granted and value most.” (Bernice Martin)
So, as I put it in an early EC pamphlet, Ruth and Naomi were no lesbian lovers. David and Jonathan weren’t gay. Neither were Jesus and the Beloved Disciple, the men of Sodom, cult prostitutes nor slave boys and their owners. Gay or straight today, we make a huge mistake extrapolating from our experience of sexuality and reading that into the ancient world. We can’t experience even what our parents and grandparents assumed on a whole range of things in their time and place. No matter how counterintuitive or how easy it is to project our experiences into the ancient world, we must sidestep such self-centeredness and become historically informed.
Marten Woudstra, Calvin Seminary professor and translation chair for the NIV Old Testament, observed: “There is nothing in the Old Testament that corresponds to homosexuality as we understand it today.” A New Testament scholar agrees: “There is no text on homosexual orientation in the Bible.” (Victor Paul Furnish) And again, it was 50 years ago that Helmut Thielicke called for a more realistic response to same-sex couples. “Homosexuality”, he wrote, “can be discussed at all only in the framework of that freedom which is given to us by the insight that even the New Testament does not provide us with an evident, normative dictum with regard to this question. Even the kind of question which we have arrived at”, he said, “must for purely historical reasons be alien to the New Testament.” Classics scholar Sarah Ruden, who frequently writes for Christianity Today, adds her insight on Paul’s world: “There were no gay households; there were in fact no gay institutions or gay culture at all”. Yet the self-centered still refuse this clear evidence, anachronistically smuggling today’s homosexuality into the Bible.
Self-centeredness is the most readily available motivation. On any issue, we change our minds when we have a vested interest to do so. If we think we have a vested interest in not changing our minds, we won’t. Parents of gay kids have a vested interest in changing their minds about what they’ve heard in antigay churches. So do the kids. But antigay preachers have a vested interest in not changing their minds. For preachers, the cost can be loss of career. For parents, the cost can be loss of their kids.
But preachers, parents and kids, scared of losing their eternal souls, can’t change their minds while faced with alleged antigay Bible verses. They need cleared consciences. For that, they must more deeply understand both those verses and the law-free Gospel.
Though not addressing homosexuality per se, John Frame, a Westminster Seminary classmate of mine and now a major Reformed theologian, states succinctly: “Our dignity is to be found not in what we do, but in what God has done for us and in us.” (Italics mine.) And, he cautions: “In Christian ethics, there is always a ‘situational perspective.’ There is always a situation to which the law must be applied. And Scripture does not always specify that situation in detail. There is, therefore, always a role for human reason: to take the word of God and apply it to the situation. No command of Scripture is perfectly specific.”
Secular and spiritual gurus sell many flavors of Kool-Aid. Their secret is appeal to self-centeredness. Whether economic, social, racial, ethnic, political, sexual, gendered, pre-modern, modern or postmodern, each self-centered system of salvation is a self-righteous rationalization that bears within itself seeds of still more self-righteousness and still further resistance to real reconciliation.
In the run-up to the mid-year elections, self-styled “progressives” and self-styled “traditionalists” are busy with self-serving hype about themselves and self-serving disdain for opponents. At least they’re not challenging each other to duels, as was not uncommon in our nation’s earliest history.
But, whether former, current or wannabe “saviors”, none can save us from ourselves. Polls find that a majority of likely voters say that neither Democrats nor Republicans speak for them. Perhaps what these polls are picking up is that there’s way too much self-centeredness in the politicians and way too much self-centeredness in the people. So, everyone is self-centeredly upset that no one speaks for my “me” but me! Uh, yeah?
When it comes to religious, as over against governmental scenarios of salvation, there, too, we find a scarcity of soundly selfless solutions but plenty of self-righteous self-centeredness.
Here too, Frame offers insight as he notes: “Scripture is multi-perspectival [and] most good theology is also multi-perspectival.” He laments: “The church has been impoverished by certain narrower approaches which absolutize certain ‘emphases’, ‘orders’, over against others and which overgeneralize and misapply Scriptural principles by ignoring perspectives other than their own.” [Italics mine.]
Sadly, the first thing many Americans associate with so-called “Gospel” preaching is antigay harangue. Jim Denison, a Southern Baptist leader and blogger, says: “When Christians meet felt need, we earn the privilege of meeting spiritual need. Jesus fed hungry bodies so he could feed hungry souls. He calls us to show that our faith is right by showing it is relevant.” Denison says a mentor reminds him: “You have no right to preach the gospel to a hungry person.” Good point. So, Denison asks his readers: “Will you earn the right to preach the gospel today?” Yet, does his own failure to identify with gay couples’ deep needs for sexual intimacy – as he meets his deep needs for intimacy – fail his criterion for having the right to preach the gospel to spiritually hungry gay couples?
After decades of psychoanalytic nonsense on homosexuality, self-styled “ex-gays”, with “baptized” Freudian jargon and “faith healing” lingo, pushed deliberately ambiguous promises and then rationalized failure. All along, former leaders apologized for the damage done throughout some 40 years.
Same-sex attracted Christians were kept from hearing the real Gospel of God’s free grace. Many committed suicide. Others turned away from their childhood faith in Jesus and settled for the religiosity of rainbow flags flying from churches that no longer “lift high the blood red flag that bears Christ’s Name alone.”
Male heterosexual preachers, extrapolating from their sexual orientation, pushed gay men and women into mixed-orientation marriages that the preachers would surely not want for themselves. Mixed-orientation marriages never turn gay husbands or lesbian wives straight but do turn them away from each other – physically, emotionally and marriages end painfully. The “biblical” bullying victimized the couples and their kids. Do these pushers not know any better or do they selfishly choose not to know any better?
Folks still flock to “health ‘n wealth” preachers but the Religious Right’s roots in racism, its homophobia and its substitution of so-called morality for the substitutionary atonement have taken a toll. “Possibility Thinking” that twisted sin and salvation into mantras of low and high self-esteem has now gone bankrupt – literally. For some time now, much of the liberal Protestant mainline has been sidelined. “Weekly policy papers on social issues” (Chuck Colson) can be more easily muted on the Sunday morning talk shows than from a pew. And being told by your minister that you’re part of a mosaic of incoherent interfaith spirituality hardly invites serious inquiry into Jesus Christ, the Creator and Redeemer of the cosmos!
A columnist at the liberal Guardian who says she’s “no longer a practicing Christian” says that something’s been lost in churches where sin has been replaced by “self-loathing about body image” and where “celebrity culture” substitutes for glory. One of her readers cites Clement Atlee’s quip on Christianity: “I like the ethics; don’t like the mumbo-jumbo.” Says that reader: “That ethics may not be able to survive without the ‘mumbo-jumbo’ … suggests that it may not be mumbo-jumbo after all.”
The Heidelberg Catechism is a presentation of Christian faith from just over 450 years ago. It begins with a tender summary of the Good News of God’s redeemed. First question: “What is your only comfort in life and death?” Response: “That I am not my own, but belong, body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for Him.”
That’s Good News for anxiety-ridden self-centered folks who have never known any way out of their restlessness than the bad news of self-righteous rationalizing, revolt or resignation. Returning to Augustine’s prayer: “You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.”
So, no, the “greatest single event in human history” was not that “1964 New York World’s Fair”. Except – except that, right there, up front in its title, there’s reference of the “greatest single event in human history”. 1964! A.D. 1964! Anno Domini 1964! The Year of our Lord, 1964! Even in the illusion of the 1964 Fair’s being the “greatest single event in human history”, there’s inescapable allusion to what was truly the “greatest single event in human history” – the coming of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ!
In the summer of 1964, in an essay in The New York Times, prolific public intellectual Isaac Asimov gave his account of the Fair. He was so overawed by what he imagined to be the future, he exclaimed rhetorically: “What will life be like, say, in 2014 A.D.?” So, he misplaced “A.D.” – after instead of before the year. Maybe this atheist simply wasn’t used to using such a reference. Yet, apparently, he was not able to express his profound exaltation over what the future might hold a mere fifty years hence, without framing “2014” in that profoundly weighty, if unwitting, way.
But, there’s more. Do you know what was the greatest attraction at the so-called “greatest single event in human history”? The Fair’s most popular attraction, by far, harked back to what truly was the “greatest single event in human history”. Indeed, it dramatically depicted the greatest single day in human history.
The Fair’s biggest attraction was the Pieta by Michelangelo, on loan from the Vatican. That masterpiece displays Jesus’ corpse cradled across his mother’s lap after he’d laid down his life to redeem this lost world.
But, even that magnificent sculpture is marred by a mark of self-centeredness. Michelangelo, on overhearing a stranger say that it was the work of a rival sculptor, took a chisel and carved into a sash across Mary’s breast: “Michelangelo Buonarroti of Florence made it.” Can we not all identify with such a self-serving urge?
On that greatest single day in human history, Jesus’ disciples, the Temple elite, King Herod, Jewish mobs, soldiers casting lots for his clothes and Rome’s prefect Pilate were all in it for themselves alone. Jesus, alone, was in it for others. They sneered: “Let him save himself if he’s the Christ!” They scoffed: “He ‘saved’ others, did he, and himself he cannot save.” But, that was the point! He’d come, not for himself, but to give his life as a ransom for the many.” (Mark 10:45) He came to save them from themselves.
So, no matter your political preference, whether you’re gay or not, no matter your racial, ethnic or gender identity, if you’re grateful for the truth that Paul expressed when he wrote: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting our sins against us” (II Cor 5:19), you’re blessed with the Good News that fills “the entire New Testament [that is, after all] a commentary on the cross”. (Darrell Bock) But Fox News isn’t The Good News and The New York Times isn’t the New Testament.
We, today, can no more expect real answers to our deepest problems from politicians (“traditional” or “progressive”), self-esteem gurus, scientists, celebrities or identity groups than the people in Jesus’ day could expect real answers to their deepest problems from Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, the Temple Mafia, King Herod or Caesar himself.
In 1933, in the midst of The Great Depression, Westminster Seminary founder J. Gresham Machen wrote in the Annals of the American Academy of Political & Social Science: “This world’s problems can never be solved if you think that this world is all.” Then, paraphrasing Archimedes, he added: “To move the world you have to have a place to stand”, i.e., a solid foundation, i.e., God’s position, God’s providence, God’s provision.
An old Gospel hymn puts it like this: “My hope is built on nothing less / Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness / I dare not trust the sweetest frame / But wholly lean on Jesus’ name. / On Christ, the Solid Rock, I stand / All other ground is sinking sand.” (Edward Mote) That’s true here, today and forever.
Is that our hope, our testimony? Is it your hope and testimony? If it is, listen: Let’s put our self-centeredness to good use. Jesus said we know how to treat others because we know how we want to be treated. Though we were his cross, he loves us beyond our ability even to begin to grasp the fact. Can we not afford, then, to love each other? His everlasting love casts out all fears that fuel our slavishly selfish self-centeredness. (I John 4:18)
Let’s make the very best of our self-centeredness. Let’s be moved by God’s everlasting love so that, resting in the peace of God’s power, we might move, more and more, from our selfish self-centeredness to a self-centeredly informed service for others.