The poem above was written by request for the Rev. Bruce MacKenzie Pastor Emeritus of the church I serve in Boulder, CO. “The way of all flesh” was a saying Bruce loved to say when referring to anything that is temporary in this world. At one visit I had with him before his passing he said to me, “Soon I will be going the way of all flesh, but you and I know that is nothing to be concerned with. So no tears.” I said to him, “Well we teach that Jesus wept when Lazarus died and he was just about to resurrect him, so I cry when you leave.” He laughed at that and changed the subject. Bruce’s body might have gone the way of all flesh. But though the outer man is beyond our seeing, the inner man remains eternally abiding.
Do you know that this life, as most of us engage it, is mostly illusion? Yes. In fact most of our lives have never happened as we have imagined them. This may feel disconcerting. I know we want to believe that our lives have meant something and that the stories that we have told ourselves about our lives have real substance, but the reality is that it is not true. Are you curious about why I would say such a thing? You might ask, “What about my role in my family? What about all the ‘good’ that I have done? What about world peace and saving the planet? What about my religion? Do you really expect me to believe that all of that is illusion? I am somebody. I am a special person who does special things that mean something in this world.”
Yes. All of things are wonderful. Yes. Only you could have had the experiences that you have had, are having, and will have. Yes. No one can do the work that you do here. But… the meaning that we give to these things is not universal. It is subjective and without inherent substance. The only substance it has is what we give to it and as such every engagement that we have with the people, places, events, things etc. is a solitary experience that exists only for the creator of that experience…us. And the fact is that this imagination of ours is a very awesome gift and a beautiful ability that God has shared with us, but what we do with it is only for us. It cannot be shared. And that my friends, is the paradox out of which all suffering is born. We cannot figure out how to get the whole world to go along with our storylines and many of us experience that as very lonely. And sadly, many of us get attached to people who have no interest in our stories, but who we have decided should especially agree to our awesomeness–often family–and we use most of our imagination trying to figure out ways to get their approval.
We want to be unique, special, awesome, and all things wonderful in the world. But more than anything, we want to be right. We want everyone to agree with the story we tell ourselves about what our life means–what the world means–and if they do not agree, our world comes apart. Why? Well we want to be right because on some level, we know that we are the creators of our own experience and yet, when our creations seem to get out of control, we do not want to take responsibility. Why? Because when we create a world where we are super special and the central character around which all of life revolves, then it is imperative that we maintain our “rightness” at all costs because without it, it seems that all hope is lost. To us, being “wrong” is death because somewhere in the beginning of the story that we create for ourselves, we establish our infallibility as the prime directive. No matter what happens, the story must end with our “rightness”. Otherwise, it becomes very difficult to orient ourselves in the story. If the “creator” is not always right then the story may turn out “wrong”. So what is “wrong”? Well, for most of us, “wrong” is whatever makes us feel uncomfortable. And as such, “right” is what makes us comfortable.
Unfortunately, when we get to this point, it means that we have become lost in our own story. It is like a swimmer who goes too far out into the water and gets tired. They then begin to fear drowning and may very well do so without help. Or better yet, it is like an actor who gets so lost in the character, that they no longer can tell the difference between themselves and the character that they are playing. That is all well and good for the movies, but at some point and time the person has to be able to get out of character. If they can’t bring themselves out, then they will need help from someone else. So how can one do that? Well first off, the person doing the extraction has to be able to live in paradox. Secondly, they have to decentralize themselves when they enter into another person or group’s story. Third, they cannot value comfort over discomfort. Fourth, they must be willing to become whatever the other requires in order to clandestinely guide the other out of the illusion—even if it means looking like a jerk, liar, or hypocrite. You can see this principle at work when people like Jesus went nuts on the moneychangers or when Abraham Lincoln said to Horace Greeley that:
“If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear,
I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.”
The ultimate requirement of an extractor, however, is that they have to be willing to die in the story. Think about the likes of Moses and Martin Luther King Jr. who made it to the mountaintop in the stories of which they are a part, but were unable to enter the “promised land” themselves. Of course the above mentioned Abraham Lincoln did this too. And if you really want to see this principle at work, you can’t see a better example than Jesus Christ. If the person is not willing to die in the story, then they will, out of necessity, try to shift the story for their own benefit. They must be other focused or the extraction will definitely fail. At all times they must work like they will live forever, but be willing to die right now. And, this death does not simply mean the physical death. It includes everything from being willing to walk away from a job to having your reputation tarnished. You must have no attachment to the world that will supersede the prime directive—which is to steadfastly stand in reality while in the presence of illusion.
The above poem explains how this is done. It requires faith. Hebrews 11:1-3 teaches “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. For by it the elders obtained a good testimony. By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible.” (Check out the whole Hebrews Chapter 11 for examples) This is extremely important for someone doing extraction to remember, because if they do not have faith, they will be more likely to rely on their own understanding and be swayed by what things seem to be. A person operating out of faith knows that the only Universal story is the one that emerges out of the context of eternal life—God’s Story of infinite abundance (If you can call it a story). If the true story is emerging out of a context of eternal life, then all actions that have as their aim preserving the life of the actor, are illusory at their root. This is why Jesus said in Mark 8:35 “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s (Good News) will save it.” And this is precisely why we cannot share our individual stories. To live our lives in such a way that our purpose is to avoid death makes us death’s slave. This is the ultimate illusion.
Paul makes this clear in Romans 6:16-18 when he says, “Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness? But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were delivered. And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness.”
Given this summation of things, to live in the fear of death is to be the slave of death. But to live in and toward eternal life is to serve eternal life–the only life there is. When one lives out of this reality, they can understand what Paul meant when he said, “O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?” This has to be the mindset of one working toward the freedom of their friends lost in their own story. In John 15:13 Jesus says, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.” For many people this may sound like martyrdom. It is not. Death is a part of every life. Ultimately, nothing tells us more about a person’s life than how they face death. When one understands this, the love that Jesus is talking about becomes clearer as well. It is this Love, born of faith that sets all people free. There is no reality beyond the scope of this freedom. All words fall short of describing this reality. It must be lived.
Once someone begins living into eternal life, they will wonder why they did not give up their limited story sooner. They will see their rescuers actions in a different light and they will appreciate the risk that their rescuers took to bring them back to true life. Some may even choose to share the true life with others. But none of this is a possibility until they break free from their story–until their feet feel the solid ground. As long as they are in fear they cannot know the love that would enter into their death story in order to bring them to life. For as 1 John 4:18 teaches, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love.” Those operating from faith must put off fear even when we feel it and trust the promises of love that we have never been forsaken even in our darkest hour.
When right before he died in our story, Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lamasabachthani?” that is, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” he showed the very depths he was willing to go to free us from illusion. He put on the lie of death so that we could see life at work. He lived wholly into every moment even into what we fear most and he did not try to avoid any aspect of it even the worst mental, physical, and spiritual pains that we could imagine–total abandonment, rejection, helplessness, and annihilation of our story. But as I receive this choice he made in faith, I believe that he and others who have surrendered their own story of who they are for God’s story, have done so to show us that “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us (Romans 8:18)” when we go the Way of Life in faith.