These thoughts started a conversation that was had at Lee Memorial United Methodist Church on Sunday, April 29, 2018. The discussion was based upon a reading from Luke 6:36 and Philippians 2:1-11.
I have developed a handout to accompany this teaching and, hopefully, further the discussion in your home or small group. You can download it here. Note: the questions on this handout are often different from the questions raised in the discussion.
He was not the first to think it, but when his ideas began to spread people got upset. People liked thinking they were the center of the universe, that everything revolved around them. They had believed it for millennia. Religious folk were especially upset and challenged by the idea that sun and stars did not revolve around them. They eventually tried Galileo for heresy.
It is amazing how upset and disoriented people can get when they find out that they are not the center of the universe. To be honest there is a part in all of us—even in those of us who are introverts—that want to be the center of attention. We want to stand out, be unique, to make our own mark on the world and those around us.
This universal inclination to put ourselves at the center of the universe, Nouwen et al. describe, in the book Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life, as the competitive self.
We find ourselves deeply immersed in all sorts of competition. Our whole sense of self is dependent upon the way we compare ourselves with others and upon the differences we can identify. When the question “Who am I?” is put to the powers of this world—school officials, church representatives, placement officers, athletic directors, factory managers, television and radio announcers—the answer is simply, “You are the difference you make.” It is by our differences, distinctions that we are recognized, honored, rejected, or despised. Whether we are more or less intelligent, practical, strong, fast, handy, or handsome depends upon those with whom we are compared or those with whom we compete. It is upon these positive or negative distinctions that much of our self-esteem depends. It does not take much reflection to realize that in all family problems, race conflicts, class confrontations, and national or international disputes, these real or imaginary distinctions play a central role. Indeed, we invest much of our energy in defending the differences between people and groups of people. Thus, we define ourselves in ways that require us to maintain distance from one another. We are very protective of our “trophies.” After all, who are we if we cannot proudly point to something special that sets us apart from others?
Why are we so competitive?
Are there any dangers, detriments to being so competitive—everyone seeking to standout above the rest?
Nouwen et al. observe that “As long as our primary concern in life is to be interesting and thus worthy of special attention, compassion cannot manifest itself.” So long as we seek to pull ourselves back and make ourselves the center of the universe, we will never be able to live the compassionate life.
Living compassionately involves a re-centering of the universe. Living a life of compassion means displacing ourselves and placing others at the center.
4 Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. 5 Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:
6 Though he was in the form of God,
he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
7 But he emptied himself…
Jesus re-centered the universe. He lived fully for others. He was willing to give his whole life for a purpose other than his own preservation. He shows us the way of compassion.
The compassionate life re-centers our universe. We empty ourselves such that others may take center stage.
Self-emptying does not ask of us to engage ourselves in some form of self-castigation or self-scrutiny, but to pay attention to others in such a way that they begin to recognize their own value.
Paying attention to our brothers and sisters in the human family is far from easy. We tend to be so insecure about our self-worth and so much in need of affirmation that it is very hard not to ask for attention ourselves. Before we are fully aware of it, we are speaking about ourselves, referring to our experiences, telling our stories, or turning the subject of conversation toward our own territory…
Why is it so difficult to remove ourselves from the center—to self-empty and make others our primary concern and the center of attention?
Copernicus was deemed a heretic and arrested.
Jesus was crucified.
Re-centering the universe is a risky and dangerous proposition; perhaps that is why Jesus said “All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will find them”
To follow Jesus along the way means to give up being in the center, humbling and emptying one’s self, and living wholly that others might know their sacred worth and find life. Its about giving up control, lowering oneself and lifting others up. And, its not an exercise where you hold people up till your arms are tired and then gently put them down so you can rest. We are called to constantly lower ourselves so that others might be lifted up. And, when our arms fail—as they are prone to do—then we must repent for “whoever tries to preserve their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life will preserve it.”
When we fall back into our competitive habits and watch out for our own good above that of others, we must seek forgiveness in the name of Jesus and pray that we might find the strength and courage to try to walk the way of compassion once more. For it is only in losing our life, it is only in walking the way of compassion that we will find life.
Jesus said, “Be compassionate just as your [heavenly] Father is compassionate.” Empty yourself, like Christ, fully and completely giving yourself in love to others. Take on the risky and dangerous task of re-centering the universe. Be compassionate; and, do it all in the name of Jesus for “he is [our] light, [our] strength, [our] song.”
Other Ideas, Thoughts, and Questions:
- Why do we think that competition brings out the best in us? Why can’t simply caring for one another be enough?
- What makes us unique is not our being—we are all made, created in the image of God. In this regard we are all the same—one could even say siblings.
- Competitiveness not only creates winners and losers, but it also devalues giftedness and talent. A fish will lose always lose a footrace.
- I’m not a scientist nor an astrologist, most of what I know about the stars I learned in an entry-level astronomy class and by watching Star Trek; but, it seems to me that if everyone were act like a black hole—a body whose gravitational pull seeks to suck up as much matter as it can (think an inescapable toilet drain that never stops swirling and consuming crap)—that the whole universe would be pulled to shreds.
- A compassionate person does not assume they have the answer.
 Henri J. M. Nouwen et al., Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life (New York: Doubleday, 1982), p17
 Ibid., p65.
 Philippians 2:4-7a, Common English Bible.
 p.79-80. Emphasis added.
 Matthew 16:25, Common English Bible.
 Luke 17:33, Common English Bible.
 from No. 3105, “In Christ Alone,” in Worship and Song