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Picnic in the Park this Sunday, June 16th. No gatherings at the kalen center!
rsvp to bring a dish here‣

AfterWords | Dying to the Old Self Without Really Dying, and the Invitation to Dance with the Trinity (June 4, 2023)

AfterWords is a series of community-contributed reflections intended to further the conversations that begin during Parish sermons.

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A 3-Minute Read
by Dave Ake

Jordan spoke of a “cruciform love of dying to the old self.” I have been sitting with these words.  I am aware of an inner play that can easily play out within me when I am spiritually sleepwalking:

Act One: I convince myself frequently that I can control my spiritual growth. I just need to know the right thing to do, do it, and then see the results. Read the scriptures, go to church, pray, stay away from the hot sins, rinse and repeat.

Act Two: I make a project out of my spiritual life. It’s all up to me: how well I do it, whether others notice, the absence of struggle. I will seek out podcasts, books, sermons, and retreats that give me more lifehacks to optimize my Christian life. After all if we follow Jesus, it works – right? I monitor my progress and enjoy the blessings of a spiritual life.

Act Three: The pressure is on.  I have sky high standards and I don’t meet them.  Because I don’t want to see my shortcomings I choose to dwell on what I am doing well.  I have to split off from those parts of myself that do not line up with my spiritual persona.  Anything that does not conform to my image of humility and living right is pushed into the shadows.

I have enough material resources and emotional intelligence to keep this train moving smoothly until some sort of great love or tragedy shakes me to the core and exposes a commitment to measurable growth over transformation.  The illusion that I call the plays that make or break my transformation is seen for what it is.

At this point you might be thinking “Yikes,” and you are right.  Thankfully I can see this pattern more easily now.The name I would give the above play is “spiritual bypass,” and bypass ain’t just a highway!

Anytime I use my spiritual life as a vehicle for avoiding difficulty, vulnerability, or unpleasant emotions I cheat myself.  Spiritual bypass allows me to use the cover of my Christian life to remain fully in control and force a positive outlook on all things.

I lay these cards out on the table because I am tempted to take Jordan’s exhortation to the pattern in our scripture from this past weekend and formulize it. Here is the pattern without the bypass lens:

Colossians 3:1-6

I died with Christ > I have been raised with Christ > Put off therefore > Put on therefore

The spiritual bypass part of me is very interested in a specific type of death that is manageable and measureable.  Through this lens, I would describe it like this: I have died with Christ when he forgave my sins, and because of this new identity in Christ, I need to say no to out of bounds sexuality and relational ugliness and say yes to a right heart and right relationships.

The above is not wrong per se, but notice the emphasis:

  • I set the agenda for my spiritual growth. Success or failure is totally in my hands.
  • Success can be narrowed to the dos and don’ts of the list when I perform to meet the standard.
  • Life is neatly placed in binary boxes of “Don’t do these bad things and do these good things.”
  • As long as I am focused on me pulling off the list, I don’t have to grapple with the parts of me that don’t align with the scripture.

In short, a big component of spiritual bypass is me denying my humanity.  I too easily use scripture to draw clear boundaries about right living and then just focus on what I am not doing.  Maybe that comes from being raised in a church culture where the NO was much more emphasized than the YES.  I’ll come back to this in a minute.

My faith and moral muscle-flexing can serve as a powerful bulwark against feeling alone, expressing rage, or drowning in shame. Am I proud of my rage when a family member blocks my plans I have had to get away for weeks? No. Is it human? Yes.

Taken to the extreme, I could say: “Since I am in Christ now, rage is of the false self. Being rageful is not of God, so I will no longer be rageful.” Can you see the setup here? I need to watch out because I am a ticking timebomb! I cannot purge myself of the smaller self. I cannot rise above my humanity. As a matter of fact, that would be going against the grain of Christ who embraced His humanity.

Getting back to this question of the NO before the YES – I find it very timely that Jordan’s sermon was given on Trinity Sunday, because of the big YES that the Trinity invites us to:

Engaging with this mystery of the Trinity leads us into a desperate and dangerous love affair with God. It’s a love affair that’s always going on inside of us, almost in spite of us, and all we can do is start saying yes and start recognizing and honoring it.  – Richard Rohr[i]

The NO of right living is necessary. Morality is important. It matters. However, when I focus on the NO first in service of me staying in control, looking good and avoiding pain, I end up with a very small world and a faith that really revolves around me.

I think integrating our full humanity into our lives helps us say NO with more centeredness and realism. Learning how to be healthily angry when the moment calls for it or delighting in and embracing a sexuality that gives us tastes of the larger divine union we are a part of.  We then can move beyond the binary categories of “These things glorify God – and those things He hates so I will disown them.”

Helping us say YES to a larger life is The Trinity. However, this YES will take us beyond ourselves in some uncomfortable and wonderful ways.  The relationship between the Father, Son, and Spirit is dynamic – nothing stays the same. There is a dynamic of constant emptying then filling up again to give away, and if we follow the pattern we will be taken beyond our resources.[ii]

This radical picture of endless giving and dynamism gives new breath to our scripture passage.  Here is a thought of COL 3:1-6 through a Trinitarian lens:

I died with Christ in relation to my sins and continue to die to the smaller self as I fully own my humanity and emotionslearning to let go of love on my terms little by little > I have been raised with Christ into an endless dance with the Trinity and to let Their love pour into me, and then that love pours out of me into others > Put off therefore selfish sex that does not reflect the beauty of divine union and relational giving or anger that tears down others and puts me at the center of the universe; these things make a small universe of one instead of the larger story of Three plus One > Put on therefore a posture of openness, surrender, and honesty that welcomes the Father, Son, and Spirit’s endless movement toward me no matter where I am.  Each moment is sacred for what it is­every bad day, disappointment, tragedy, and ecstasy belongs.

In closing, what is the YES I am feeling invited to? Here are a few thoughts:

  • Mystery over Mastery –­ God is the one who does the deep spiritual work in us, all we can do is get out of the way and cooperate. It is His initiative, His Spirit. How we live matters, but we cannot make lasting spiritual change happen ourselves by our own efforts.
  • Humanity over Halos – God asks us to be exactly who we aremess, beauty, and all. He does not require us to clean up before we approach Him. He does not give us the scripture or church as a means to avoid the messnor are we to leave our mess at the door when we hang out with each other as believers.
  • Presence over Performance – My energy with the Spirit’s help can help me be awake and alert and allows me to be with myself no matter what emotions are rising. Authentic living can happen when I can live with a torrent of emotions and be with myself, God, and others. My primary energy is not driven to show how well I am doing thingsbecause I am living from a place of abundance with the Trinity. Furthermore I can own that I want to be noticed in life! It is not a bad thing to be recognized and valued. It’s just that my value is not dependent on how I live; I do not have to earn God’s approval.

Let’s Dance! The invitation is perpetually before us. Living with the Trinity has the potential to change the way we live.

[i] Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance: Exploring the Mystery of Trinity (Albuquerque, NM: Center for Action and Contemplation, 2004). Available as CD and MP3 download.

[ii] Center for Action and Contemplation – God is Always Dancing

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