It was Thomas Merton who said that most of us have reduced the gospel to a ‘personal salvation project’ – to something that bolsters our own views, opinions and, ultimately, our own ego position. In actuality, the gospel calls us to a death before a completely different kind of life…resurrection life. We lay down our ego project so that we might be free to become who we truly are ‘in Christ.’
Salvation Army officership was, in many ways, my personal salvation project. When you’re young, all your good deeds are pretty much about ourselves if we care to admit it. The Salvation Army gave me a good framework, a good ‘container’ which helped me understand responsibility, duty, morality and service. It gave me shape, a purpose and an identity that I could cling to as I sought to drag myself from the bootstraps out of a highly dysfunctional family background. I will always be thankful for The Salvation Army for that foundation that I didn’t get anywhere else.
It is taken be a good 6 years to realise that leaving The Salvation Army was the greatest gift God has ever given me. And as much as my ego would have made it out to be The Army’s fault, the leaving was actually for my on benefit. Bereft of my identity as an officer and a Salvationist, I entered into what Richard Rohr would call ‘the necessary fall.’ It isn’t until we are jolted somehow that we discover that our first half of life experience is not the ultimate goal, it is simply the scaffolding.
Odysseus is a figure from Greek Mythology whose first journey is all about fighting in the Trojan war. He becomes a great hero and then, at the end of the war and his fame, he enters into the struggle to find home again, and to return to the place where he is king. Through many struggles and temptations he makes it home. He is reunited with his wife, his son, and gets to see his father and faithful dog before they die. All is well and then he remembers that he met a prophet on the road who told him that a second journey was necessary. In this journey, he was to take an oar (a symbol of his identity of the first half of his life – he was a warrior seaman) and go on a second journey inland. The point at which he met a wayfarer on the road who mistook his oar for a winnowing fork, he was then to plant the oar in the ground and finally be able to return home for good.
The story points out that the life we build for ourselves in the first half of life gets us to the point where realise we need to be about the business of letting it go in order to come truly home.
Paul has been this way. Look at what he says in Philippians. Speaking of his ‘first half of life task’, he says that he was a proud Pharisee, devout, holy, righteous, perfect, Hebrew of Hebrews, proud Benjamite…and then his fall came…his experience of Christ on the Damascus Road where he realised he was blind. When he was ‘unblinded’, he was then able to say that all the things he’d held as so important in comparison to Christ. ‘Shit’ is his real word for it.
I set out on this second journey of ‘laying it down’ some years ago. It is likely to be an ongoing journey as I learn so see what is really of worth, the promise of ‘Christ in you’ and become more and more who I really am, ‘the face I had before I was born.’ In a sense, I carry my oar in search of the wayfarer. I sense, somehow, that my journey in my 20s with the Army are simply a foundation to what will come some day, and whatever that is, perhaps somehow it will not be about me but about Him.
My job isn’t it. My role isn’t it. My ideas aren’t it, and nor are my opinions, prejudices or plans. Christ is it, and like John the Baptist, we must always seek to find the path that says ‘he must become more, I must be come less.’
I am still in that realm of ‘vocational uncertainty’, but the more you lay down your own ego structure, the more you realise that it doesn’t matter where you are or what you do, it is who you are and how you reflect Christ in living a generative and thoroughly resurrected life here and now.