Kenosis, Self-Emptying Love — “The Jesus Trajectory”
“It was not love stored up but love utterly poured out that opened the gates to the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Generosity of spirit is innate with everyone. We are born to be givers. This pandemic, along with hurricanes and wildfires, is bringing out the spirit of giving in us all, heralding in a new day and shaping a new world. When I see it acted out in movies and news stories, I tear up with joy and longing for the return of generosity to our world. A passage from my poet friend Don Hynes expresses what I feel today:
This passage from Cynthia Bourgeault’s THE WISDOM JESUS touched a place in my heart of deep sadness for the state of the world mingled with profound love for this Man she honors and celebrates so exquisitely personal. How little we know of his colorful character from the Four Gospels. The Gnostic Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene give us a taste of his more candid expressions, some rather blunt and thought provoking: “Whoever is near me is near the fire. Whoever is far from me (the fire) is far from the Kingdom.” He was no gentle lamb, nor a “sweet Jesus.” His generosity of spirit still shines through his words and deeds recorded in the New Testament, all of which were written down four to five decades after his departure, all from oral traditions. Yet they inspire and compel us to be better and do better than we have been and done heretofore—even to be ablaze with love as he was. Cynthia introduces this passage with poetry by Rumi:
Yet in the midst of suffering,
Love proceeds like a millstone,
hard-surfaced and straight forward.
Having died to self-interest,
she risks everything and asks for nothing.
Love gambles away every gift God bestows.
The Jesus Trajectory
The words above were written by the great Sufi mystic Jalalludin Rumi. But better than almost anything in Christian scripture, they closely describe the trajectory that Jesus himself followed in life. He certainly called us to dying to self, but his idea of dying to self was not through inner renunciation or guarding the purity of his being but through radically squandering everything he had and was. John the Baptist’s disciples were horrified because he banqueted, drank, and danced. The Pharisees were horrified because he healed on the Sabbath and kept company with women and disreputables, people known to be impure. Boundaries meant nothing to him; he walked right through them.
What seemed disconcerting to nearly everybody was the messy, freewheeling largeness of his spirit. Abundance and a generosity bordering on extravagant seemed to be the signatures of both his teaching and his personal style. We have already noted this in two of his parables, where the thing that sticks in people’s craws is in each case the display of a generosity beyond comprehension that it can only be perceived as unfair. But as we look further, that extravagance is everywhere. When he feeds the multitudes at the Sea of Galilee, there is not merely enough to go around; the leftovers fill twelve baskets. When a woman anoints him with expensive ointment and the disciples grumble about the waste, he affirms, “Truly, I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her” (Matthew 26:I3). He seems not to count the cost; in fact, he specifically forbids counting the cost. “Do not store up treasures on earth,” he teaches; “do not strive or be afraid—for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke I2:32). All will come of its own accord in good time and with abundant fullness, so long as one does not attempt to hoard or cling.
It is a path he himself walked to the very end. In the garden of Gethsemane, with his betrayers and accusers massing at the gates, he struggled and anguished but remained true to his course. Do not hoard, do not cling—not even to life itself. Let it go, let it be-“Not my will but yours be done, 0 Lord. Into your hands I commend my spirit.”
Thus he came and thus he went, giving himself fully into life and death, losing himself, squandering himself, “gambling away every gift God bestows.” It was not love stored up but love utterly poured out that opened the gates to the Kingdom of Heaven.
Over and over, Jesus lays this path before us. There is nothing to be renounced or resisted. Everything can be embraced, but the catch is to cling to nothing. You let it go. You go through life like a knife goes through a done cake, picking up nothing, clinging to nothing, sticking to nothing. And grounded in that fundamental chastity of your being, you can then throw yourself out, pour yourself out, being able to give it all back, even giving back life itself. That’s the kenotic path in a nutshell. Very, very simple. It only costs everything.
Now, I wouldn’t say that Jesus was the first or the only teacher in the world ever to have opted for this more reckless and extravagant path, the kenotic way to full union. But it does seem that this was the first time such a teaching had ever been seen in the Near Eastern world, and along with its newness also came confusion. It was a concept so far ahead of its time that even Jesus’s closest disciples couldn’t quite stay with it. They’d catch it and they’d lose it. Paul catches it exactly in his beautiful kenotic hymn, then loses it in the long lists of rules and moral proscriptions that dominate his epistles. And as the church took shape as an institution, it could not exceed the wingspan of its first apostolic teachers; what they themselves did not fully understand, they could not hope to accurately transmit. Thus, as we will see in the next chapter, right from the start the radical simplicity of Jesus’s kenotic path tends to get roped back into the older and more familiar ascetic models, with a subtle but distinct dissonance that we will be keeping our eyes on.
“It only costs everything.” Cynthia’s words in this passage take me back half a century to the awakening phase of my spiritual transformation. I was in my late twenties, just starting up my chiropractic practice in Denham Springs, Louisiana, eager to give my gift to the world and hungry for patients to serve. The going rate for an office visit back then was $15, up from $5 a decade earlier. Even with such a low fee, however, I felt restricted and handcuffed by the tradition of a “fee for services.” What price can one place on health? On life itself? Health is priceless and life is a gift freely given by God to all human beings. It didn’t feel honest for me to place a price tag on my services, so I dropped my fees altogether and placed my services on a “giving basis.” This launched me into the most rewarding and enjoyable fourteen years of my entire career. (This was before the widely available use of credit cards and insurance coverage of Chiropractic care.)
This way of serving wasn’t original with me but was already being successfully modeled by Dr. William H. Bahan and his brother, Dr. Walter Bahan, up in Derry, NH, who were seeing upwards of a hundred patients a day. I began attending his seminars and discovering that there were a number of chiropractors practicing on a giving basis. Six years into this new way of serving—called “GPC” for God Patient Chiropractor—I wrote an article for ONTOLOGICAL THOUGHT, a journal of The Ontological Society, while attending an Art of Living Class conducted by the Universal Institute of Applied Ontology (the art of being). The article is entitled “How Do You Live, Doctor?” I’ll share it in my next post. Until then,
Be love. Be loved. Be for-giving.