Your life is without a foundation if, in any matter, you choose on your own behalf. ~ from “Markings” by Dag Hammarskjold.
Haunting words. They pierce like a fish knife, slicing through the flesh and pulling it back to reveal my heart.
I don’t like what is there: selfishness, self-centeredness, self-absorption. How unwilling I am to lay aside my own interests to attend to someone else’s. Why should mine be most important? How did I get this way?
Oh, little town of Bethlehem …
My mother had a habit of almost promising to do things. Maybe I’ll do this for you or maybe I’ll do that for you. Her good intentions were enough, she thought. I despised that. And now I am the same way.
It seems I often choose on my behalf. I always have a project going. I will do this for you when I am done with my own. I may miss the deadline if I interrupt my project. Yet … yet, the scriptures say I am to think of others.
Hammarskjold says “any matter.” Any?
This does not mean being a doormat. Being a doormat is not a choice, but a self-preserving reflex. We’re talking about choosing another’s behalf. Sometimes choosing another’s behalf means to say no, when you are really doing it for yourself or when it makes them beholden to you. But these are not usually my problems.
Now I understand my mother. How easy it is to live a fantasy life in which I am generous, caring and kind. If I imagine doing something good for someone, in my mind, it’s as good as done.
Elsewhere he says, “So, once again, you chose for yourself—and opened the door to chaos. The chaos you become whenever God’s hand does not rest upon your head. …”
The chaos is my enslavement to time, to my fears, to an illusion of control. It affects my neighbors. When I have the power to do good but withhold it, people are left uncared for, forgotten, ignored. They get the message.
Just the other day a friend was telling me about a woman who has always been friendly to her. But when she recently saw the woman in a store, the woman looked at her vacantly and rushed by. I said the woman was probably preoccupied. My friend felt snubbed, rejected.
Does my self-absorption actually offend or hurt others? Does it come across as rejection?
In the weekly prayer of confession at my church, we say:
Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves...
It is the “what we have left undone” that undoes me. The nudges to visit the widow, put a few dollars in the pot, call someone, do something, that I ignore.
In Matthew 22:37-39, Jesus said there are two commandments: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
These are not just one-time choices, but many. C.S. Lewis puts it this way:
“Every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a creature that is in harmony with God and with other creatures and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God and with its fellow creatures and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.”
Is this the foundation vs. chaos that Hammarskjold is talking about? I think so.
The historical Jesus built his life on the foundation of loving God and loving his neighbor, wherever he encountered his neighbor. The living Christ does the same. I am—we are—his hands, his feet, his eyes of compassion.
This is incarnation. This is “Oh, little town of Bethlehem,” Now.