When I first began the ordination process, Paul and I drove about an hour out of town to meet with a minister who interviewed me about why I was interested in ministry and whether or not I was fit for the task. To be fair, it was helpful in that it foreshadowed and prepared me for the next few years of my life, but in the end of course nobody enjoys that sense of being grilled or interrogated. So I sat there and answered questions about this and that experience, and what I thought about all sorts of things. And then he asked me with this serious look on his face, suggesting this was incredibly important, “what are your best and most important disciplines of self-care?” I wracked my brain for a bit and then delaying the inevitable I asked him to repeat the question. “How do you practice self-care?” So I looked over at Paul and then looked back at him and I said “I’ve gotta be honest with you I don’t have a clue what you mean by self-care. Self-doubt self-loathing those I can tell you all about. But I don’t know a thing about self-care.”
As it turns out for so many the Christian religion is often presented as just that, as a religion or system of disciplines by which we grow and progress into better versions of ourselves. More pure, more righteous, less sinful. Through disciplines or acts of self-care we’re convinced that we can will and work ourselves into someone who is fit for ministry or someone who is fit to raise a family, to run a business, finish school, to fight off depression or loneliness or even sickness—all on our own.
What are your best disciplines of self-care? Or perhaps the better question is how are they working for you? How far along the way to becoming a better you a better parent, friend, spouse, employee or minister are you? If you’re like me or anyone I’ve ever met then they aren’t working too well, or at least you don’t feel like you’ve become or gotten all that much closer to the man or woman you want to be through your own efforts. Because life is still full of suffering, and how can that be if we’ve been working so hard at climbing up that ladder of achievement and discipline, why am I still sick, why do I still feel so alone, and why are things so tense and broken in the world, or in my family?
In today’s gospel reading we begin to see an answer to these questions. We begin to see how Christianity isn’t a religion or system of discipline and self-achievement at all, it’s a message—it’s a word of good news about the one true God whose unconditional love for the ungodly people of this world is just that, unconditional and absolute.
Today we hear Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount. We see Jesus leave a crowd and walk up a mountain, and then we see the disciples follow him up. Now remember these are the disciples with hair still stinking of fish, and skin still blistered and cracked from the sun—who’ve just put down their nets to follow him and so they’ve followed him up a mountain. You can picture them beginning to think to themselves, “Alright, I can do this. We’re set apart from the crowd, following this great guy, this celebrity. We’re literally standing on top of a mountain!! We’ve made it, we’ve made the right decisions and now we’re among the elite. Things are going to be pretty great.”
But then Jesus slowly turns around and looks at them, and knowing the place of glory and achievement their minds have raced to, he immediately begins to speak about the beloved—those who are, right now, right this very moment, the poor, meek and mourning. Those who are persecuted. Jesus says you’re not blessed for coming up this mountain, and you’re not blessed for climbing the spiritual ladder or “being” and doing “good”. You can almost see Jesus pointing down to the huddled masses at the bottom of the mountain saying blessed are those who hunger and seek righteousness, because in order to hunger and seek after something, you must first recognize that you don’t have it—you must recognize that you’re not righteous. Blessed are those who are pure in heart—those who are honest about their heart actually not being pure, but in need of mercy and grace. Blessed are those who have stopped climbing and who simply lift their eyes up unto the mountain, to see where their help comes from. From outside and above themselves.
With that gentle point of the finger, Jesus flips and overturns the ways of the world that tell us we need to be strong, we need to grit our teeth, ignore pain as weakness and move on, along the way to glory. Jesus flips it, and you can imagine the disciples beginning to flip out.
Because they’re like you and me, they don’t want to see themselves for who they truly are—as someone who is in need, someone who mourns, who is weak and poor and without righteousness. We don’t want to acknowledge how futile and foolish our means of obtaining happiness and joy through control, discipline and accomplishment are. Thankfully, although it sure doesn’t feel good, life is full of opportunities to painfully come to this realization.
Jason Isbell is one of my all-time favorite musicians, and he can attest to this painful, beautiful truth. A talented guitar player and song writer from Muscle Shoals Alabama who from an incredibly early age found success in a great band called the Drive by Truckers. But as the band and Jason got better and better, he seemed to get worse and worse, unraveling in the public eye under the weight of drugs and alcohol, his marriage ended, and his friends eventually kicked him out of the band. Things fell apart.
A few years back he released a solo album about getting sober and meeting his second wife Amanda. He sings:
“Old lovers would say, I thought it’d be me who’d help him get home. But home was a dream, one I’d never seen, until you came along.”
It’s a beautiful line but underneath it is the horribly painful experience of Jason seeing for the first time how out of control he was. Because until he could stop his attempts to overpower and silence the suffering and the difficulties of life with professional success, booze and drugs, he didn’t have a prayer because he couldn’t save himself—he was way beyond a self-care remedy. He had to see and feel the system of success and glory he had constructed being painfully torn to the ground—to a place where he could acknowledge his brokenness, his weakness, and seek help.
He sings this in another recent song:
You thought God was an architect, but now you know
He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow
And everything you built that’s all for show goes up in flames
In twenty- four frames
Whether he’s aware of it or not, I think Jason Isbell has stumbled upon a Gospel truth here.
Because the Gospel isn’t about perfection or building ourselves up or overpowering this weight we all carry on our own. Christianity is about life. It’s about life that at times feels like one painful pipe bomb after another that reveals to us just how out of control of our lives and futures we are. It’s about a life of failure and mistakes and unbearable weakness. It’s about your life and my life. It’s about a life of self-inflicted and unintended circumstances that drop us to our knees—and in that place, poor, meek and mourning—we are loved—we receive grace—and we’re forgiven. The Gospel is the good news that you and I in the midst of our explosive lives are blessed.
Our own rock star in residence, Sam Bush, puts it like this
honey, somewhere down the line
i can’t remember when
i began to fall behind
the beginning of the end
people say i’m doing fine
some of them are friends
but i am on the outside
forever looking in
i’ve done all i could to find my place
i just got lost instead
honey, could you be the way?
could you be the way ahead?
fall in through these doors if only for a while
go back to the days when you were still a child
you’re looking for a voice to come from up above
but could you ever find another word for love
We can look, we can climb and build systems of discipline and self-effectiveness, but there is no other word for love—and that word is Jesus Christ. We need love that meets us where we are, in the valleys of our lives rather than the mountain tops. We need love that doesn’t wait for us to get our act together and ascend up to him, but comes to us and died on a cross so that we might live—so that the reign of sin and death and self-congratulatory ladder climbing might be destroyed once and for all. So that we might hear, “it is finished”.
So where in your life are you feeling the painful reminder that you’re at the bottom of the mountain? Where are you like the disciples trying to fool yourself that you can climb back up all on your own? Because it’s in that place, where your weakness redirects your eyes away from yourself—away from your own effort and achievement. It’s in that place that you find the strength of Jesus’ love, mercy and forgiveness. What you find is that you are blessed.