At our service on Sunday we celebrated the 18th Birthday of St. David’s Uniting Church with balloons and games; party bags and childhood photos; prayers and praise. Here is Phil’s reflection for the day –
Reading: 1 Corinthians 13; 1 John 4:15-21
Looking at the childhood photos of current church members, it’s interesting to consider what’s remained of their childhood selves there…like Pam’s eyes, Viviane’s Norman flair or Lynda’s height…and what’s changed…like Maralyn’s chubby cheeks or Anne’s headwear! The more significant question might be how they’ve changed on the inside…in their outlook, their personality, their faith…over the years. In our society, of course, an 18th Birthday is the most significant marker of the change that another year brings for from that day you can go to the bar and ballot box; you can serve on a jury, be tried as an adult, marry without permission…It’s the main legal marker between childhood and adulthood…and so, as St David’s Uniting Church turns 18, it might be interesting to reflect on how we’ve changed over the years. How have we grown? Who or what have we lost…and who/what have we gained? Who is St. David’s Uniting Church as we take out first steps into adulthood?!
Well, Carl Jung, the pioneering Swiss psychoanalyst and son of a reformed minister, was one of the first psychologists to write about how our growth in age and experience affected our psychology. Though he wisely refused to put an age on it, Jung suggested that our lives are often split into two parts. The first half of life, he proposes, is devoted to forming a healthy ego, the second half involves letting go of it. Forming a healthy ego and then letting go of it. What might that look like? Jung suggests that the early years of our lives are spent building our sense of identity – our survival, security, understanding of our place in the world. This time of life has a focus on the self and our natural obsessions revolve around ambition, clarity of belief and moral stringency. Then, if we’re given the love, support and security we need to develop in a healthy way, Jung suggests that the second part of our lives involves letting go of our former needs and certainties – of deconstructing the self. Not everyone progresses to this stage, Jung suggests, but for some of us, as we encounter the messiness of life through sickness, loss and failure, we learn to let go of our self-obsession; we learn to embrace difference, contradiction, even sacrifice.
So what do you think? Does that ring true with your experience? I must say that it does with mine and my observation of others too. And over the years Jung’s theories have been accepted, adjusted and applied by many influential leaders across diverse fields, such as the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson, and Franciscan friar Richard Rohr. Rohr, in fact, takes Jung’s ideas further and convincingly argues that the two parts of life – the first focused on survival, success and certainty; the second on letting all this go – is foundational to our Christian faith. Indeed it seems to be mirrored in the Hebrew scriptures where the earliest books are on the Law – on the very commands that might lead to survival, success and certainty. Next come the prophets and a catalogue of failures, disappointments and defeats for Israel which subsequently leads to the wisdom writings where we encounter mystery and paradox.
Rohr goes on to suggest that much of Jesus’ teaching can only make sense in light of this… ‘Leave all things and follow me’…one must have before one gives away. ‘Do good to those who hate you’…not great advice for those seeking survival; ‘pick up your cross’; ‘blessed are the meek’; ‘cling to your life and you’ll lose it but let it go for my sake and you’ll gain it’…time and time again, Jesus undermines our narcissistic need for control, success and black and white, in and out thinking and instead invites us to move ‘from power to weakness, from glib certitude to vulnerability, from meritocracy to the ocean of grace’.
As we look back on the last 18 years of St. David’s Uniting Church, perhaps you see some mirroring of this movement in our life. From three denominations protective over buildings, traditions and identities to one ever-widening family who recognise that God is at work beyond these walls as well as inside them. Perhaps we are living into the second phase of our life already…
For all his own self-importance, I think that Saint Paul certainly did…for he praises powerlessness; he focuses so much on the cross; he talks of seeing things in part and of putting away childhood reasoning. That Paul matured into this more progressive outlook should be of little surprise to us for, more than most, he knew how life-changing it was to move from law to grace; from zealous guardian of Temple truth to missionary to the gentiles.
Whilst most of us here this morning won’t have experienced a conversion quite as dramatic as Paul’s, for some of us, our shift from that first half of life thinking to the second might well have been sudden. A significant loss, a noted failure, a time of sickness might have forced us out of a place of comfort and certainty and onto a path of vulnerability and openness. For others of us, our life experiences might have encouraged us to meander gradually from self-absorption to ever-widening empathy. Whatever the case, our ego can at times tempt us all back to this individualistic mode of thinking – to childhood ways of reasoning – and so as we mark our church’s 18th Birthday it might be helpful to pause and think…is there something of which I need to let go? Is there a belief, a grudge, a millstone around my neck that is getting in the way of my love for God, neighbour or self? Is there someone I am called to forgive; some control I need to let go; some tightly held view of myself or judgment of another that it’s time I lay down? And as a community, as a church, is there an unhelpful view of success; an obsession with survival; a rigidity of ritual that we might need to address too? Are we a church who truly embraces the power of the cross as well as the resurrection?
Such questions aren’t easy. They require patience, self-awareness, humility and a whole lot of love! It’s no coincidence that Paul’s most explicit acknowledgement of his letting go of previous rigid thinking comes sandwiched between his exquisite ode to love. The psychologists will say we need to develop a healthy ego before we can let go of it. The holy men and women put it slightly differently – ‘We love because he first loved us’.
That one sentence from the first epistle of John might sum up all I’ve said this morning. ‘We love because he first loved us’. That single verse encapsulates God’s very nature, God’s movement to us through creation, Christ and cross. ‘We love because he first loved us’. Those seven small words contain the meaning of life, the mystery of the divine, the ministry of the church. For when we accept that we are loved by a radical, ridiculous, extravagant love, we might, in turn, love others. When we know we are loved by God, truly and profoundly loved as we are, only then might we have the strength and wisdom to really let go of our power and prejudices; only then can we freely forgive; only then can we love others with a love that is patient and kind; not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude; with a love that does not insist in having its own way but that bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
So, as St David’s Uniting Church turns 18, as we consider who St. David’s Uniting Church is as we take our first steps into adulthood the answer must surely be clothed in love. We are a community loved by God. We are storytellers of God’s love for all creation. We are forgiven and forgiving, fallible and fabulous practitioners of such love. We love because he first loved us. Happy Birthday St. David’s Uniting Church. To God be the glory! Amen.
 Richard Rohr – https://cac.org/vulnerability-even-in-god-2016-03-17/