At the height of her career, the late Lady Diana was considered one of the richest, most beautiful, most privileged and most admired women in the world. However, what the world didn’t know was that she was also bulimic, depressed, and failing in her attempt to rescue her marriage. One day this beautiful, famous, rich, but miserable young woman intersected the life of an ugly old woman who owned virtually nothing. Her name was Mother Teresa. Lady Di thought this famously gracious nun would give her consolation, but instead, the grizzled old saint gave her a verbal kick in the pants, saying, “Young woman, your problem is, you are too focused on yourself! You are too fixated on your own needs. You are too focused upon yourself. You need to expand your sense of self, and open yourself up to feel the needs of those around you. Use your celebrity status to address the needy of the world. Use your platform and respected voice to give power to the powerless. Expand your sense of self and live for others, rather than be solely concerned with your own needs.” That conversation changed Lady Diana’s life. She began to invest herself on behalf of those living with AIDS, on behalf of impoverished children and other causes. She found that expanding her sense of self to address the suffering of others gave her a peace and sense of purpose that she had been lacking. Ironic, isn’t it, that these two greatly dissimilar women intersected each other’s lives in such a significant way – and they died within a few days of each other.
When Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do men say that I am?” they parroted to him the scuttlebutt that they had been hearing: “Some say you might be John the Baptist raised from the dead, or Elijah returning, or another great prophet returned to earth.” But when Jesus pressed the disciples to share their own opinion, Peter articulated the group’s perspective: “You are the Christ.” The disciples, who in Mark’s Gospel rarely got anything right, had nailed this question correctly. But they were dismayed when Jesus explained what kind of Christ he was to be. Jesus explained that he would be a Messiah who was rejected, reviled, arrested, tortured and crucified. Peter rebuked Jesus, “That’s not what happens to Messiahs! Messiahs rule!” Peter said. But Jesus in turn rebuked Peter in the harshest possible language, saying, “Get behind me, Satan!” This exchange forms the backdrop for his next words.
To his disciples and the multitude Jesus said these words, “If anyone would follow me let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow. For those who try to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the Gospel’s will find it.” Jesus was telling his disciples what Mother Teresa said to Lady Diana, ‘If you want to find purpose and fulfillment in life, expand your sense of self. If you want to find out who you are, pour out what talents you have in the service of others.’ The great paradox of life is that those who spend their lives trying to accrue for themselves, whose primary inspiration is increasing their own aggrandizement, will diminish themselves in the process. Their souls will wither. But those who expand their sense of self and pour their lives and talents in caring for others, they will find their way to God and their true identity. That is life’s great paradox.
This great paradox was brought piercingly home to me years ago at a CBF Youth Passport Mission site. Melissa had lost her male counselor at the last minute and recruited me to take his place, so at the end of an arduous week of teaching Vacation Bible School and preaching the Sunday sermon, I hopped in the car and drove the four hundred and thirty miles from Rome, Georgia to Jacksonville, Florida. The next day I found myself supervising a group of kids at a downtown Rescue Mission where someone had stacked a huge pile of hardwood that had apparently blown down in a storm. I told the director of the Rescue Mission that if he could provide me with enough axes and splitters, by week’s end we would have a stack of firewood that he could sell. He gave me the tools I needed, and I proceeded to teach a group of young men and young women how to chop wood and split it. At the end of the week the director came out to speak to our group. He called himself, “Little John.” Now “Little John” was about six foot five, 275 pounds or so, with hair to his shoulders, a bushy beard, and tattoos that ran from his elbows to the tips of his fingers. He looked like a Hell’s Angel biker, which I think he might have been before he turned his life around. But this is what he said to us, “I am so amazed and grateful for what you have done. You have given so much of yourselves. But I know this: to give of yourself is to let your spirit soar.” To give of yourself is to let your spirit soar! When that poetic insight came out of this rough-hewn man’s mouth, I felt holy chill bumps, despite the hundred and ten degree heat index. I had driven four hundred and thirty miles for this moment right here, to hear this man say, “To give of yourself is to let your spirit soar!” That’s exactly what Jesus was saying to his disciples: ‘You want to follow me? When you give of yourself, when you lose yourself helping others, your spirit will soar to God and you will find out who you are meant to be.’
Some years ago a youngster asked me to name my favorite comedian, and he looked confused when I answered, “Red Skelton.” Red Skelton was one of the funniest (and, incidentally, the cleanest) comics who ever lived. I invite young people to go on You Tube and watch Red Skelton as Clem Cadiddlehopper or the Mean Widdle Kid. Yet, even as a child, I sensed there was an underlying sadness to this man’s humor. Later I learned that he had lost a son to leukemia in 1958 and had consciously chosen to cope with his grief by employing his abilities to make other people laugh. Someone asked him why he did what he did and Red Skelton answered, “A comic is a warrior against gloom.” A comic is a warrior against gloom! He understood that to use his abilities to bring joy and mirth to others was also to find his own escape route out of darkness into light and direct his path toward fulfillment and peace. A comic is a warrior against gloom! So, too, is a Christian!
Whatever talent you have been given by God, you have been given to give it away. Every gift we have received requires us to share it in order to maximize it. A comic must joke. A dancer must dance, a writer must write, a teacher must teach, a physician must heal, a singer must sing, an athlete must compete. What use are the talents we have been given if we hoard them – they are only maximized when we pour them out to benefit others. The great paradox of life is that the more we focus upon ourselves, the more we lose ourselves. The more we give ourselves away, the more we find ourselves.
The nature of every gift compels us to share it. Hoard a gift and it will diminish. The nature of a talent — the nature of a life — is to be shared. To have a gift and refuse to share it renders a gift of no use. The only way to develop your gift is to give it away to others. Your talents are loaned to you so that you might pour them out to benefit the people around you.
Every parent knows the frustration of saying to a child, ‘Hey, would you clean up that mess in the living room?’ only to hear the child respond, ‘That’s not my mess.’ To which the parent replies, ‘Clean it up anyway!’ The parent is challenging the child to expand his or her sense of self to realize that he or she bears a responsibility to the whole family. To be truly family is to not just clean up the messes that you make, but to do whatever needs to be done. Jesus noticed this sort of ‘blinders mentality’ in people; he was keen to sense humanity’s propensity to define the self by boundaries of narrow self-interest; he beheld our tendency toward selfishness. So he told this story: once upon a time a Jew traveling between Jericho and Jerusalem was set upon by robbers and left battered and bleeding on the side of the road. Along came a priest who looked at the bloodied Jew and said, “That’s not my mess,” and he passed the man by. Along came a Levite who saw the wounded Jew and said, “He’s not my mess,” and he scurried away, too. Along came a Samaritan, who bore no kinship to the wounded Jew by blood, faith or nationality, but who looked upon this wounded man with an expanded sense of self and poured himself out for this man, saying, “This man is my neighbor.” He placed this man upon his own beast and took him to an inn and provided for his healing. Jesus says to us, ‘That’s the kind of person I want you to be. That’s the kind of faith I want you to practice! That’s the kind of person I value. Expand your sense of self to pour yourself out for those whom you might not think are your mess.’
The apostle Paul reminds us in Ephesians that God equips us with the helmet of salvation, the belt of truth, the shoes of peace, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith and the sword of the Spirit. You don’t put on all that equipment and do nothing! You are equipped to go out in the world to serve, to battle for goodness, to battle for justice. God would not gird us with such equipment to stand around in idle contemplation. It would be like putting on football cleats, knee pads, hip pads, shoulder pads and a helmet, then going home and sitting in our den. If we put on all that equipment, we are meant to go outside and play in the game! Faith is not solely about believing; faith is about believing and doing.
One night at our CBF Passport Missions camp Melissa asked me to deliver the devotional to our youth, and I told them, “This week, you are all honorary deacons of our church.” When they gave me a quizzical look I responded, “You are honorary deacons because what you are doing this week in your mission sites is literally where the word ‘deacon’ comes from.” Our New Testament word for ‘deacon’ comes from a Greek word which means literally, ‘through the dust.’ Through the dust! Scholars believe that this word was used to describe what happened to the feet of waiters as they moved from table to table. The first deacons served fellow Christians as waiters going “through the dust!” Their feet became grimy as they served. So, too, I told our young people, as your shoes become grimy and your socks get sandy working on your mission sites, as you go through the dust in your service to others, realize that you are ‘deaconing!’ You are finding yourself through the process of giving yourself away. For maturity of soul and largeness of spirit only occurs as we expand our sense of self and live our faith “through the dust!”
Jesus says, ‘Focus solely upon yourself and you will lose yourself. Spend your life in the service of others and you will find out who you are meant to be.’ Our faith has vitality only when we apply it to the needs of the world. The more intentionally and sacrificially we apply our faith to others’ needs, the greater our sense of the power of the love of God. I remember reading an exchange between a reporter and a lighthouse operator. The reporter asked, “Isn’t it boring sitting out here in this tower all day and night just staring at the sea?” The man replied, “Not since I saved my first sailor.” The heart of our Gospel is captured in that exchange. When we spend our lives being instruments of redemption for others, when we spend our lives trying to find those outside the circle of grace and endeavoring to bring them into the banquet table of God, that is when we fathom the mystery and wonder and strength of God’s Kingdom. It is when we expand our sense of self to look with compassion upon those the world might consider outcasts that we experience the genius of our Gospel. As Little John said, “To give of yourself is to let your spirit soar.” Self-actualization occurs through self-denial and self-sacrifice. That’s our faith’s great paradox.
There are two great bodies of water in Israel, the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. Both hold the same water. Water flows down from the high Hebron Mountains into the Sea of Galilee which teems with aquatic life and supports a vital fishing economy. Equally important, water flows out of the Sea of Galilee to deposit a rich silt throughout the Jordanian Valley, making that area lush, fertile and green in a desert of brown. The Sea of Galilee has a great inlet, but also a great outlet. By contrast, the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth, receives her waters from the Jordan River, but has no outlet. The Dead Sea is only a repository. Water flows into it, but nothing flows out. It has a wonderful inlet, but no outlet — so nothing survives its waters, so dense as they are with salt. Jesus is telling us that many people are Dead Seas. There are many people who receive blessings, but no blessings flow out of their lives. They have an inlet, but no outlet. But my disciples, says Jesus, take up their cross and follow. They have a great inlet for blessings to flow in, but they also have an outlet, so blessings can flow out. Those who develop a great inlet and a great outlet, they will find communion with God. And they will find out who they are meant to be. Give of yourself and let your spirit soar, soar unto God, soar into the lives of others.