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You Gotta Serve Somebody

by Fr. John Oliver

Imagine an oriental rug – old, elegant, rich with color and detail. Lines and designs cover the whole surface of the rug, and our eyes follow patterns within patterns. Our rug, we will say, is twelve feet by twenty feet – that gives us two-hundred-and-forty square feet of continuous woven material.

Suddenly, a knife appears and slices the oriental rug into twenty-four equal pieces. Colored fibers scatter around the room; the edges of each of the pieces grow rough. Designs have been interrupted. After the rending, we gather and measure the pieces, and discover that we still have nearly 240 square feet of rug-like remains. 

But what do we really have? The same elegant oriental carpet? Not any more. Have we twenty-four perfect oriental throw rugs to place around the house? Hardly. Instead, all that we are left with is a useless collection of ragged fragments, each one a kind of fraying mockery of what it used to be, and what it could have been.

In A Beautiful Mind, the film about American mathematician and Nobel Prize winner John Nash, the central character works feverishly to discover a truly original idea. He works on it all the time, even as his physical and mental health disintegrate. He tells someone that his search is for what he calls “the governing dynamic” – which, in the movie, refers to a positive approach to competitive games and conflict scenarios. Governing dynamics is an organizing principle, a way of approaching a situation so that everyone benefits.

Stretching its application, we might say that each of us reaches for a governing dynamic, a way of organizing our thoughts and priorities. We make choices and determine value – this is important, this is not – based on what are often unconsciously-held assumptions. These ideas are often called our “worldview.”

The point has been made, by far more biblically-astute minds than mine, that Holy Scripture reduces the choices of which dynamic will govern our lives to just two: the true God, and, not the true God: the true God, or any number of false idols, usually manifestations of the fallen self. Relinquishing the spirit of rebellion that haunts the human heart is the hard work of Christian life. In fact, many who become Christian – or, after baptism into the Church – notice that while part of us moves eagerly toward the light, another part folds the arms, scowls, and insists on being immovable. That tension between the spirit and the flesh appears to be a common theme in the world of literature: from the Pauline book of Romans to the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

It is not that the flesh is evil, exactly. The Russian priest St John of Kronstadt wrote: “Never confuse the person, formed in the image of God, with the evil that is in him: because evil is a chance misfortune, an illness, a devilish reverie. But the very essence of the person is the image of God, and this remains in him despite every disfigurement.” So, while the flesh is not evil, it does exert a kind of downward pressure on the soul. Everyone – Christian or not – has to deal with this, because, as any addict or criminal (or anyone who feels he or she is just barely hanging on) will tell us, sometimes the downward pressure can become pretty intense.

When the giving up comes, and the hands are thrown into the air, a person is often ready for a new governing dynamic, something that will organize life into something manageable – manageable, then perhaps something beautiful.

The twelve-step programs invite a person to organize his life under a higher power, however he currently conceives this power to be. This is smart. Those who benefit from twelve-step programs tell us that if the governing dynamic of the self is the self, all manner of delusions will follow. The Christian observation is that he who has himself for a spiritual father, has for a spiritual father a fool. Is not the first law of the spiritual life that none of us are as strong as we think we are?

By at least recognizing there is higher power worth organizing one’s life under, transformation becomes an immediate possibility. Larger hands can shape us, even if we cannot describe or define what those hands are or to whom they belong, or what will happen to us once the shaping begins. This is humility: making ourselves smaller than The Other. Though we may not know how, we at least have the hope that the shredded oriental carpet of our lives can be sewn together again.

One of the frustrating, and fascinating, things about life is that while it is easy to imagine one’s life as an integrated seamless whole, it is often hard to live that way. We compartmentalize: work, marriage, parenting, church, hobbies, current events, charitable activities, retirement. And, depending on the compartment in which we are currently operating, we might even find ourselves thinking or acting differently, as if one set of behaviors fits one category but not another. So, the pursuit of a governing dynamic continues. And it is pursued, usually, not by hypocrites – people who intentionally live in a state of conflicting behaviors because of some advantage it brings to them, but by sinners, people who strive, but fail, to reach a state of interrelated behaviors, simply because living a life of integrity is the right thing to do.

St Paul is writing: “…He [Christ] is before all things, and by Him all things consist. And He is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He might have the preeminence.” For lives coming apart at the seams, Christ is the possibility. He is the only figure in history to have gone to such great lengths to rescue unraveling lives. Think of it! He is the great pendulum swing: the almighty God who became lowly man; the self-sufficient deity who became a helpless infant; the Creator of the Universe who submitted to its crude limitations; the immortal and everlasting Author of life, who died – who died not the death of a king, but the death of a criminal. The Supreme Good willingly crushed beneath the weight of every evil.

And why? It’s right there in the most popular bible verse: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever should believe in Him, should not perish, but have everlasting life.” We say it or hear it so much that it sometimes loses its power: God loves the world. God…loves…the world.

“You gotta serve somebody,” sang Bob Dylan, “it might be the devil or it might be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody.” It’s a lot less poetic – and certainly less singable – but you must have a governing dynamic: it might be the instincts of the fallen nature, or it might be the commandments of the living God, but you must have a governing dynamic. Salvation is the process of putting away the knives that fragment life – pride, anger, vengeance, sloth, and the rest – and restoring the beautiful patterns for which we were made. It is the most monumental of tasks, impossible without the grace of God resting upon the effort of men.