“I keep the Lord always before me” (Psalms 16:8; Acts 2:25).
“I celebrate myself, and sing myself.” That is the opening line of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself. While it sounds like something of the recent genre, it actually was written over 130 years ago.
Walt Whitman was unashamedly daft over this self: “I dote on myself, there is that lot of me and all so luscious.” Even his body odor sent him into religious ecstasy – “The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer.” His head was worth all the churches, bibles, and creeds. After reflecting for a moment on the mystery of deity, he was forced to the conclusion: “Nothing, not God, is greater to one that one’s self is . . . Nor do I understand who there can be more wonderful than myself” (Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, Doubleday).
Whitman was a prophet and a poet. His narcissistic song of self, first published in 1855, prophetically captures the modern preoccupation with self. Today we have a cult of the self – with a new commandment: “Thou shalt love thy Self with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment.” Loving God and neighbors are not included. Self has no a la mode.
Self is placed in proper perspective by the Psalmist – God comes before self. “I keep the Lord always before me” the psalm singer said, and he linked his life to God by saying earlier: “I have no good apart from thee” (Ps. 16:8, 1). The passage is repeated in a sermon by Peter in the passage from Acts. Equating this Lord with Jesus, Peter preached the necessity of placing Christ before Self. This is the locus of both the Hebraic and the Christian traditions – God comes before Self.
It is no easy task to keep God before us. One of subtleties of sin is to move God slightly off center – God is still ahead of us, but not dead ahead. Morality may be directly ahead or Positive Thinking or Patriotism or Reason or Nature. God is out there, all right, but not in the primary position. God is merely an adjunct to those values we have selected to be important in our life. Even faith can elbow God to one side. What we believe (inerrancy of scripture, right to life, pure living, etc.) can supplant Who we believe.
In all that has been written and spoken regarding the drug problem, there are very few that point to the spiritual dimension of the crisis. What makes people turn to drugs like cocaine? The old answer, that drug users are those whom life has little to offer, no longer seems to fit. The explosive spread of addictive drugs is not just a big inner-city problem. It’s clear that crack is being used by both adults and adolescents, by blacks and whites, by poor and rich alike” – not only by the frustrated and disadvantaged, but by those who “have it all.”
How can an activity once considered “escapist” appeal to so many in such an abundant society? If material things could satisfy, this should be the golden age. Yet watch television, read the papers and magazines; ask your neighbors, your children, their teachers. You’ll wonder if ever before have so many people with enough food, clothes, and housing felt so desperate and dissatisfied.
Could not the answer lie in the loss of society’s spiritual dimension. The self is the neo apex. God is no longer before us. we have blocked God, hidden God, denied God, and in so doing have lost purpose, goals, and the kind of spiritual beacon ideals greater than oneself alone can give to life. Once this happens, there seems to be no other way for a person to behave than to turn to self-aggrandizement.
Political and legal action is called for in curbing drug traffic. But as the appearance of “designer drugs” makes clear, human ingenuity can always stay one step ahead of legal control. We cannot solve the drug problem until we go at the main reason that drugs are used. God has to supplant Self as Number One in society and in the individual life.
What kind of God do we keep before us? Certainly not a God who is a blank or a vague nothing. Author Marya Mannes rejects a God who is a Blob. She finds that kind of God in the original Meditation Room of the United Nations General Assembly Building. Since the room is for the use of many nations with many religions, it is necessary to avoid any symbol that might offend any believer. Permitted are a polished red tree trunk, a cluster of philodendron, and a shaft of light. But what is the character of the God whom we worship here? Ms. Mannes writes:
“It seemed to me standing there that this nothingness was so oppressive and disturbing that it became a sort of madness, and the room a sort of padded cell. It seemed to me that the core of our greatest contemporary trouble lay here, that all this whiteness and shapelessness and weakness was the leukemia of noncommitment, sapping our strength”(More in Anger, J. B. Lippincott).
A story is told of a despairing patient who once went to a physician in Naples, Italy. He complained to the doctor of a severe melancholia. Regardless of what the man did, he could not manage to rid himself of a profound feeling of sadness. Said the physician, “I know what can help you. Go visit the theater where the incomparable Carlini is appearing. Every day this great comedian convulses crowds of people with hysterical laughter. That is the answer, I am certain. Go to see Carlini.” Whereupon the patient burst into tears and sobbed, “But doctor, you do not understand. I am Carlini.”
While it’s good advice to look outside oneself for help, another person can only be helpful if God is present within that person and it is truly God through that person that is being experienced.
Martin Luther put it simply in his great Treatise on Christian Liberty:
“A Christian man lives not in himself, but in Christ and in his neighbor . . . He lives in Christ through faith, in his neighbor through love.”
The Christian gospel says there is a key that will help a person come to grips with herself or himself. Peter presented in his sermon: it is Jesus."