Posted by secondchurch on October - 19 - 2018

This Isn’t About You

Mark 10:17-31

October 14, 2018

Carla J. Bailey


We’re in an interesting time in our country, in which many more people now know the meaning of the word narcissist than did fifty years ago, or even ten years ago.  Of course, not as many who use the word freely know about the Greek myth from which it comes.  Narcissus was a handsome Greek youth who rejected the advances of the nymph Echo, which caused him to fall in love with his own reflection in a pool of water, though I’m not exactly sure myself how that happened.  One way to tell that a word or idea is trending is to do a Google search and discover that there are 63,800,000 citations for the word narcissism – everything from poetry and music to how to rear children free of narcissistic tendencies; from how to break up with a narcissistic boyfriend to how being raised by a narcissist damages your life and self-esteem.  Of course, narcissism is a widely-used descriptor of many of our elected representatives and leaders, and I am certain it takes more than a healthy – even excessive ego to withstand the scrutiny and slings and arrows of public life, but do we really understand this serious psychological disorder?

Many years ago, I heard Marie Fortune, an early leader in the movement to hold clergy accountable for sexual misconduct, speak to a large group of church folks at a national meeting.  In the question and answer period following her presentation, someone asked her what would she say to seminarians and new ministers if she had a chance to provide counsel.  Without missing a beat she answered “this isn’t about you”.  It’s a hazard of the profession, I’m afraid.  Too frequently we forget who it is we’re called to serve, and worse, we begin to believe that the success or failure of any particular church under our care is up to us alone. 

But it’s not a hazard reserved for clergy, lest you think you’re off the hook.  Just a few years ago, researchers from Ohio State University published interesting and disconcerting results of a study seeking to measure whether and how parents and other well-meaning adults unwittingly exacerbate if not create narcissism in developing children.  “Research shows that narcissism is higher in Western than non-Western countries, and suggests that narcissism levels have been steadily increasing among Western youth over the past few decades,” the authors write in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (February 12, 2015 vol. 112 no. 12).

Writing about the results of the study for Forbes, Alice Walton described it in this way: “The team examined the roots of narcissism, by pitting two competing theories of narcissism against each other. The social learning theory suggests that kids become narcissists when their parents overvalue them – that is, when parents treat their kids as fundamentally more deserving than others. In contrast, a psychoanalytic theory suggests that kids become narcissists when their parents withhold warmth – so the kids have to put themselves on a pedestal and seek approval elsewhere.  Which kids were more likely to be narcissistic as time went by?  [The study revealed that] parental overvaluation was the largest predictor of a child’s narcissism over time, but interestingly, it did not predict self-esteem. In other words, telling kids how exceptional they are doesn’t produce kids with good healthy self-esteem – it just makes them more narcissistic.” (Forbes, March 9, 2015)

There is already a lot of pressure on parents to raise above average children and I never want to add to that burden.  In general, I’m pretty sure those of us who are raising or have raised children are all doing the best we can, so please don’t interpret my referencing this study as yet one more boulder on the pile of rocks already heaped upon the hearts of parents.  I’m talking about the unhealthy ego here, and not our children’s unhealthy egos, but our own, in our drive to produce the best, be the most, do the miraculous.

Do you think it is possible to put one’s personal ego aside for the good of another person?  Most of us are able to do it for people we really love, and some of us are able to do it for the sake of justice and peace, but hardly any of us can consistently put our egos aside for strangers, or because “it isn’t about us”.  A healthy ego isn’t a bad thing.  Don’t confuse healthy with huge.  A healthy ego makes us strong when we need to be and it keeps us going when we want to quit, and it helps us learn new ways of doing difficult things, and it reveals new possibilities for solving old problems, and it inspires critical thinking and creativity.  A healthy ego keeps things, even terrible things, in perspective.  It makes it possible to keep on keepin’ on, even after failures and setbacks and frustrations.

Remember the story of Malala Yousafzai, whose activism began in 2009.  She was 11 when the Taliban overtook her home region of Pakistan and she began writing the “Diary of a Pakistani Schoolgirl” for an Urdu-language BBC website.  She described the regime’s practice of destroying girls’ schools and, when the Taliban relinquished local control, she began to speak out publicly against the Taliban’s policies. Can any of us imagine what it would be like to write so honestly and courageously in the face of such danger?  She is many things, that brave young woman, among them an exemplar of a healthy ego.  She advocates for rights for all young people but especially that every girl everywhere should have full, unfettered access to education.  Even before the Taliban shot her she received the Pakistani National Peace Award, the country’s highest civilian honor.  Now, of course, at the ripe old age of 21, she’s an international rockstar, the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.  I think you’ll agree with me that Malala is not a narcissist.

Closer to home I think of a friend of mine whose father was murdered when he was a young man.  Now my friend tirelessly and uncompromisingly travels to states that still practice the death penalty, and testifies in courtroom and legislature about the senselessness of state sanctioned killing.  He has a strong and healthy ego and it keeps him going, even when he hears for the millionth time the lie that the death penalty deters violent crime.  He patiently teaches, gently presents evidence, and tells his own story, over and over again.  He has done it for years, and he will continue to do it until every state follows the recent example of the State of Washington, declaring that the death penalty is unconstitutional.

Too many people think that being a good person – an admirable person – means to be ego-less.  I don’t think that’s accurate.  Rather, the people I know who are truly, deeply good people know and understand themselves well.  They decide, daily, to rise above dire circumstances, even simply tedious circumstances to make the quality of life for others better.  They have mastered an ability to transcend their egos’ idiosyncrasies, defects, even prides.  Just like being ego-driven is not a healthy goal, neither is having no ego a goal or ideal.  Striving to be better than our egos – that is a goal.  Making our individual egos obedient to a greater good – that is our ideal.

Look with me for a moment at the story about Jesus and the rich man.  Mark tells us that the man believed he had done everything he could imagine to be a good disciple – all he believed appropriate and necessary to follow Jesus.  We should all do the things that young man did, or more accurately, didn’t do: refrain from stealing; never bearing false witness; not defraud another.  But then Jesus told the young man, well – there is one more thing. 

I’ve known this story, and the versions of it recorded in both Matthew and Luke, for years, and for the most part, I’ve always thought it was a story about relinquishing money and the power money had over the young man’s sense of self, reminding us of the power wealth has over us.  And I imagine, in this season of pledging our financial support for Second Church in this coming year, I for one would be relieved if all of us were to relinquish a bit more of our money than the man in this story who just walked away sad.

But I’ve come to see something more here.  The problem with the young man is not that he is rich and doesn’t want to be poor.  It is that he cannot subdue his ego for the sake of God’s reign and realm.  “I’ve done everything I’m supposed to do”, say we all.  Surely that’s enough.  Well, no, because we’ve done everything we’re supposed to do, while all the while our motives have been almost entirely about us – making us better Christians, making us nicer, more generous, more prayerful, whatever.  But, you see, discipleship isn’t about us. 

Jesus was not fooled.  He never was.  The rich man could not take that last, huge step, the preposterous leap of giving away everything he had (and isn’t that a metaphor for ego?) because everything he had – all his wealth – demonstrated who he was and without that, who would he be?  He prays, he fasts, he keeps the commandments.  He is righteous and even generous, giving away a large portion of what he has to the poor, and to the saints for the work of the church.  Jesus was not, at that moment, looking for one more generous person.  He was, instead, looking for one more selfless person and that was just one thing more than this fine young man could be.  He could be good.  But he could not separate his ego from his stuff.  He couldn’t see his way clear to being selfless for God.

Jesus looked for disciples who trusted God with their lives, with their hearts, minds, bodies and souls.  Jesus wanted nothing to get between the human heart and God’s heart.  Nothing, not money, not power, not prestige, not obsessions with our culture’s lusts, not sorrow over the things that have been lost or worry about the things that will never be, not our prejudices nor our limited perspectives.  Not even fear for our own safety or for our own lives.  Nothing.

I believe the young man went away sad because Jesus asked him to give up something he trusted more than God.  He could not do that last thing required of him.  He could not trust God.  Can we?  Let’s ponder that for a moment.  What is that one thing we just cannot relinquish before giving ourselves over, heart, mind, body, and soul, to God?  Amen.


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