July 24, 2016
Lately, I have been listening to an audible book by Ryan Holiday, Ego is the Enemy
Ryan became breathtakingly successful in 2006, when at the age of 19, he became the youngest executive among Hollywood Talent Agents. By 25 he wrote a bestselling book, and a TV show was optioned, based on his story. He began to believe his own script, believing that he had produced all this in the power of his ego carefully editing out his own failures and mistakes. Then in 2014 his 3 mentors who meant everything to him each crashed and burned.
These were the people I had shaped my life around. The people I looked up to and trained under. Their stability— financially, emotionally, psychologically— was not just something I took for granted, it was central to my existence and self-worth. And yet, there they were, imploding right in front of me, one after another. The wheels were coming off, or so it felt. To go from wanting to be like someone your whole life to realizing you never want to be like him is a kind of whiplash that you can’t prepare for.
How did this come to pass? Ryan continues.
The ego we see most commonly goes by a more casual definition: an unhealthy belief in our own importance. Arrogance. Self-centered ambition. That’s the definition this book will use. It’s that petulant child inside every person, the one that chooses getting his or her way over anything or anyone else. The need to be better than, more than, recognized for, far past any reasonable utility— that’s ego. It’s the sense of superiority and certainty that exceeds the bounds of confidence and talent. It’s when the notion of ourselves and the world grows so inflated that it begins to distort the reality that surrounds us. When, as the football coach Bill Walsh explained, “self-confidence becomes arrogance, assertiveness becomes obstinacy, and self-assurance becomes reckless abandon.”
In this way, ego is the enemy of what you want and of what you have: Of mastering a craft. Of real creative insight. Of working well with others. Of building loyalty and support. Of longevity. Most of us aren’t “egomaniacs,” but ego is there at the root of almost every conceivable problem and obstacle, from why we can’t win to why we need to win all the time and at the expense of others. From why we don’t have what we want to why having what we want doesn’t seem to make us feel any better.
We think something else is to blame for our problems (most often, other people). Especially for successful people who can’t see what ego prevents them from doing because all they can see is what they’ve already done. With every ambition and goal we have— big or small— ego is there undermining us on the very journey we’ve put everything into pursuing.
Hang on to your egos, I’ll circle back in a few minutes.
Following Jesus must have been a heady experience. Most of the disciples were working class folk with a couple of exceptions, but even then there were no blue-bloods. Imagine how it was the first time Jesus sent them and others out in pairs and told him to get busy doing what they had seen him do all over Galilee. They proclaimed the Kingdom of God, they taught, they healed and they cast out evil spirits. Everybody thought they were pretty important (and so did they).
The wanted to be like Jesus for all the wrong reasons.
So his disciples watching this asked him to teach them to pray and. he taught them what is called the Lord’s Prayer.
I. THE LORD TEACHES HOW TO PRAY — OUR FATHER …
Robert Farrar Capon, “Parables of Grace” – “It begins, simply, “Father” a term of relationship which is natural rather than earned. Then Jesus tells the disciples and us to pray for the food they need for each day. Notice that nothing in the way of human achievement is requested. The heart of the prayer is, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive everyone indebted to us.” We receive forgiveness because Jesus died for our sins.
And lead us not into trial (insert your most recent one here). Life is a web of trails and temptations, but only one of them can ever be fatal, and that is the temptation to think that by further, better, and more aggressive living that we can have life. But that will never work. If the world could have lived its way to salvation, it would have, long ago. The fact is that it can only die its way there, lose its way there. The precise temptation, therefore, into which we pray we will not be led, is the temptation to reject our saving death and try to proceed on our own living. Like the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, that is the one thing that cannot be forgiven, precisely because it is the refusal of the only box which forgiveness is ever delivered.”
II. THE SHAMELESS NEIGHBOR
To make his point about praying clearer, Jesus then tells a story: ”It’s like,” he said, “you are sound asleep in bed when the doorbell rings. You look at the clock and see that it is nearly 2:30 AM. Peeping through the curtain you see your college buddy, whom you have not seen in years standing at the door. He needs to spend the night and has not had a thing to eat all day. You’re glad to see him, but you have not gone to the grocer all week and all that is in the fridge is a head of dead lettuce and a bottle of good champagne.
What to do? “Well,” you think, “I could go next door to the neighbor.” So in your robe and bare feet you paddle over next-door and ring the bell. Your neighbor first doesn’t answer the door, no doubt hoping that you will go away.
So you lean into the doorbell and your neighbor’s sleepy and irritated voice comes on the intercom by the door. “What on earth do you want at this hour?” You explain your unexpected company. He says that this is not his problem, and furthermore his baby with the colic has just gone off to sleep in his bed and he doesn’t want to get up and wake the kid. Off goes the intercom. You STAND on the doorbell! If your neighbor will not get up because you and he are golfing buddies, he will get up and get you what you need because of, as the scripture puts it, your PERSISTENCE.
III. SHAMELESSNESS AS A VIRTUE.
The word persistence is not really the best translation. The better translation would be shamelessness or lack of shame.
Capon says, “What is this shamelessness but death to self? People who lead reasonable, respectable lives, who are preoccupied first and foremost with the endless struggle to think well of themselves – do not intrude upon their friend’s privacy at midnight. And why don’t they, because that would make them look bad. But if someone were dead to all that – if he could come to his friend’s house with nothing more than the confession that he was a total loss as a host (or anything else) – then precisely because of his shamelessness, his total lack of a self-regarding life, he would be raised out of that death by his rising friend.”
IV. ABRAHAM: A MODEL OF SHAMELESSNESS
In the reading from Genesis for today God tells Abraham that he is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah for their wickedness. This is a problem for Abraham because his nephew, Lot, lived there. “I’m going to nuke’em,” says God. Abraham said, “Suppose there were 50 righteous men in the twin cities? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be it from you! Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is just?” [Jews talk to God with an intimacy that few Christians ever muster]. God said, “If I find at Sodom 50 righteous, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.”
Abraham knew the twin cities so he thought to himself, “I’m not sure there are 50 righteous men in the city limits.” So he begins a shameless negotiation: “What if there are only 45 righteous?” God agrees; 40 – God agrees; 30 – God agrees; 20 – God agrees. “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more,” said Abraham peeping through his fingers, “If there are only 10 righteous men, will you not destroy it?” God agreed and went his way. (I wonder if God got out there before he gave away the farm.)
Just like the man caught at midnight without a thing to serve his buddy, Abraham is shameless. Why did Abraham risk such shameless behavior? Because he knew his God. As the Prayer Book puts it in the Rite One Eucharistic prayer, “You whose property is always to have mercy.” This merciful God is our Abba/Father.
V. GOD’S CALL TO SHAMELESSNESS?
We can define prayer as an endeavor to behold what is real.
That brothers and sisters is the only antidote to the Ego-centeredness we call sin.
What is real then to those who accept the good news of God in Christ? What is real is that Abraham and the man with the empty larder and, yes, we also are invited into a shameless and bold relationship with the Holy One of Israel.
Paul, writing the Christians at Colossae, spells out the invitation, “When you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him though faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross.”
We cannot make it on our own; therefore we are invited into a life of shameless reliance on God. God desires that we pray not to pester him into doing what he would not do unless we whine long enough. Our shameless – boldness rises from our being dead in ourselves and alive in the power of Jesus and his resurrection. It is a case of, as the Big Book of Alcoholic Anonymous puts it, surrendering to win. It is a matter of life and death that we learn that God really loves us. He promised that He would never abandon us or leave us.
Let’s live like it, maybe?
To him be glory, now and forever. Amen