"The obstacle is in our 'self,' that is to say in the tenacious need to maintain our separate, external, egotistic will." ~Thomas Merton, on barriers to attachment with God.
Yesterday a dear friend sent me a video, a well-produced piece about the power of generosity. It highlighted the stories of several church leaders who had engaged in a sort of "generosity experiment," each talking about how their parishioners had given sacrificially so that their ministry boarders might expand. And by "so that their ministry boarders might expand," I mean to say, "so that they could open satellite campuses across town." There were pastoral interviews, which cut to voice-over scenes of worship bands playing contemplative sets on can-lit, smoke-filled stages, which cut to fly-over shots of large metropolitan cities. There was a touch of accidental racism meant to appeal to middle-class suburbanites.
I watched the five minute video in it's entirety. But this I confess, and not from anger or cynicism so much as from self-righteousness: I don't buy it.
These days, radical generosity is in-vogue theology. "Go and sell everything you have..." they say, and that is all well and good. But instead of finishing the verse properly ("give it to the poor and come follow Me"), the common charge has morphed into something of colonial call, a passing of the plate for the sake of multi-site facilities, new stage lighting, or bigger sound systems. It is a dispatching of wealth to allow the church to spend as they see fit, where they see fit, within key target demographics.
Now before you grab the torches and begin a march on my internet house of heresy, let me clarify. Certainly God loves a cheerful giver, and there is nothing innately wrong with buildings, or multi-site facilities, or even stage-lighting for that matter. Sometimes, though, I think it's easy to shift the chief aim of our faith to these things. As if these things are better things than that which we would have otherwise purchased--lattes, iTunes, house furnishings. Isn't it easy to manipulate parishioners with radical theologies in an effort to achieve the satisfaction of a collective congregational ego? Isn't the ego sneaky?
Uncomfortable, huh? And you know what makes it doubly uncomfortable? I see this in my own life on a near daily basis. I see it as I exchange certain works for those I see as better works, as if works pave a golden-bricked road to Heaven.
Some days my work-based ego comes pouring out here on the screen. Some days it undergirds a poem, a short story, or some other creative work of which I am particularly proud. Sometimes it works itself out in denigrating the false for the seemingly true, even though, in reality, it's merely my vain attempt to prop myself up as right, or orthodox, or otherwise affirmed. Sometimes it comes pouring out in "justice and mercy" efforts.
Oh, the ego! So easy to recognize in the words and deeds of others. So sneaky in our own lives. Isn't it true, though? Sometimes recognizing the work of ego in another is, in and of itself, an act of the egotistic will.
I'm proud of my wife, who has lately been trying to work out some of these things. She's releasing things in an effort to jettison the approval complexes that have arisen from the need for a well-stroked ego. She's taken some practical steps to do it. If you have a few minutes today, it'd be grand if you visited her place. I think you might find some words of peace there. (And feel free to drop her a bit of encouragement on her Facebook page.)