On not doing it "My Way"
The Rectory, June 1998
I hate to speak ill of the dead, but Frank Sinatra's death last week reminded me of just how much I have always disliked one of his most popular songs "My Way". It is a song of self-justification. The words suggest that it does not matter what you do as long as you've lived your life according to your own rules. Being a "real" person means asserting your independence, your own autonomy and not bothering what others think or what impact you make on the lives of others. The singer mentions things that have been good and things that have caused regret - but the repeated refrain seems to justify it all because, whatever happened, "I did it my way". It is, to say the least, a rather sad boast.
This self-assertion stands in great contrast with what we might call Christ's way. Paul in his letters refers to the out-pouring of gifts on God's people that follows from Christ's resurrection and ascension. There are many differing gifts that people possess. The question for God's people is not "do I have a gift?" but "what gifts do I have?" Such gifts and talents are not to be denied or hidden away, but to flourish in each person. There is no false humility or feebleness here but confidence in the empowering gifts of the Holy Spirit. Paul further indicates that these gifts are to enable us to grow towards our true fulfilment and maturity - to maturity, he says, measured by the full stature of Christ. But Paul sees this in terms of mutual service and up-building. Gifts and talents are given for the good of the whole, not just the possession of the individual. Real growing up, true maturity, is not the adolescent self-assertion of grown men but the capacity to serve and help the whole community. This is Christ's way.
Paul uses his famous analogy of the human body to make his point. We are parts of a body each with its own essential and distinctive role to play. Recently I saw one of the episodes of a new series on TV called "The Human Body". It took miniature cameras down tubes and passages in the human body you'd rather not know about! But it was extraordinarily beautiful and quite amazing. The human body is so complex - the wonder is that it all works together to enable us to be. Paul did not watch TV and could not know just how complex the body is, nor therefore just how brilliant is his analogy. But he understood that the church was to be sign of how Christ's way works. It is itself to be a living organism, Christ's body here on earth.
We live in a culture that thinks the most important thing is to have the freedom to do things my way. Such talents and gifts as we have are to be used in the first place for the enhancement of our own life, to enable us to get as much out life as we can. It is inevitable that the prevailing culture will also have its impact on the church. There is a tendency to regard the church as merely a service provider in the highly competitive leisure sector of the market, to be used as and when we feel the need for spiritual refreshment. But this seriously disables the church. The body of Christ ceases to be a living organism if we who make up its life cease to care about our responsibility to each other in Christ, if we do not play our unique role as worshipper, quiet contemplative, cake maker, singer, carer or whatever. Then the church ceases to witness to Christ's way.
There is indeed a spiritual version of the attitude expressed in My Way and sometimes I feel we are close to it. I sure however that spiritual maturity requires a life-giving surrender of ourselves and our God-given gifts in mutual love for one another and for God, so that we may build up the body of Christ in the place and time in which we are set, and reveal something of Christ's way that leads to true human fulfilment and maturity.