Animals have their own way of “marking” what is theirs, and so do people. It’s our names! If one stops to consider the history of the use of our names as “markers,” it is quite pervasive.
I remember my mother marking my name in ink inside my jacket and boots; and later sewing on all my clothes laundry name tags when I went off to the seminary. The signature of my name has become the mark of my approval or acceptance. I have a vibrating metal engraver to mark my possessions with my name. Someday my name will be carved in a piece of granite to mark where my remains lay. There are lots of others examples throughout life of a name as a marker of what belongs to someone.
Of course I, or my mom, are not the only ones who do this; everyone does – even You! You write Your name on what belongs to You. Thomas Merton says, le pointe viergeis the consciousness of God’s name written in us. God has used a permanent marker, has sewn into our very being, has autographed, has signed, has engraved, carved and chiseled His name in us. We belong to Him just as my boots, jacket, lunchbox, checking account, and headstone belong to me because they were marked with my name.
My children are marked with my surname just as I am marked with that name from those to whom I belong. But we are all marked with God’s name. We all belong to Him – unless we run away from home or disown our heritage. But even then...
Now, the thought that God has written His name in me and tattooed my spirit with His mark indicates my worth and should have a profound effect upon me despite the fact that it may be invisible to others. Consider how I might operate if I went through life wearing sandwich boards that, on both sides, said “Property of God,” or, “This Human Belongs to God.” But You don’t advertize in this way. You’d much prefer that the way I live my life advertizes the One to whom I belong and who has mysteriously marked me forever with His name.
That leads precisely to the question I need to ask myself from time to time: Do I act as if Your name is upon me; as if I belong to You?
There exists a bundle of pithy sayings that are meant to characterize human life or some aspect of it. The French existentialist playwright, John Paul Sartre said, “We are our choices.” Whether or not this is an accurate characterization, it is a thought-provoking one.
If the making of choices in life defines our lives then choosing (which involves free will) becomes hugely important to our true selves – to the reality of “our truth.” In a very real sense we are “choosing beings.” There is no sin or virtue without choice. We are known by others from the choices we make. Only You know us beyond our choices.
If we choose a particular course in life, over the long run it becomes what we are known as. A pattern of short-term or momentary choices stamps our character in certain descriptive ways. There enters into this mix also the reality of mistaken choices – choices we’ve made but cannot take back even though we’d like to. Others do not see very well beyond our good or bad choices but, thankfully, You do.
It’s like the tax-collectors, Romans, poor people, “infidels,” and prostitutes with whom You associated: the choices they made forever stamped their character in the eyes of others. But Your vision went beyond their choices – and so should ours!
It’s not an easy thing to discount the things we see and hear, to ignore them as irrelevant and go deeper. Our true self is hard enough for us to comprehend. Imagine how difficult it is for others. But You see it. There must be something very special at the center of our true selves because it overrides what is apparent about us. It overrides the choices we’ve made. It overrides any repulsion You may have for us and makes us sought-after by You. What great hope there is in knowing that You love us that much. It declares loudly that we are more than our choices. We are more than the judgments people make about us, just as others are more than the judgments we make about them.
Each day there must be a hundred ways we seek recognition in what we say, do, and think, as well as in what we don’t say, do, or think. We both overtly and subtly seek some kind of a pat on the back from those around us, or from You. If we don’t seek it from others or You, then we pat ourselves on the back. To be noted, or simply regarded, affirms two things critical to our egos: 1) that we exist, and 2) that we’re OK. Acknowledgment that I am, and that I’m OK, is often, in what we say, do, or think, almost as important as breathing – at least we think it is.
In reality the second acknowledgment, the acknowledgment that we’re OK is more critical to the ego. The recognition that we are seems pretty much self-evident to us. We can affirm that for ourselves. But that we’re OK, to be valid has to come from elsewhere. Sure, we can say we’re OK, but we know that self-proclaimed goodness is hollow. We want the more marketable recognition of others. Even if we are able to master the art of self-denial and genuine humility in regards to ourselves and other people, we still nurture a deep longing to be affirmed by You. We long for the audible voice from the clouds, or from the burning bush, or pillar of fire. We want to hear God say to us, “You’re OK.” Maybe God says it all the time and the fault of not hearing it is in us.
On the other hand, maybe the knowledge deep down within us that we’re really not OK is the reason we need to hear others say we are. The fact is, we are not OK! We need salvation and You give it to us. Then we are OK!
Within the essence of being human is an urge to seek beyond ourselves. We look to an essence of being beyond and greater than humanity. It strikes me that, in a sense, this process works in reverse for God. He looks not beyond Himself (which would be futile) but rather back to us humans. As we look over and above ourselves to God, God looks back and below Himself to us. It would then seem that our perception of His sharp focus on His relationship with mankind would, so to speak, make us His god. I guess this is how highly we think of ourselves and with what limited human characteristics we might describe God.
In making God in our image and likeness we exclude the possibility that there may be greater concerns for God than us. There may be other beings and other worlds about which we know nothing. Wouldn’t this, indeed, knock us down to size? This possibility does not remove the great and unconditional love and compassion God has for us, it just poses the chance that we are not the only recipients of it.
There is the expression, “...a loving father who dotes upon his children” – that is God! But are we His only children? It boggles the mind for us to think of how precious to God is every element of His creation. Yet we only consider God’s creation as what we can perceive. Is it true (as we probably imagine) that God’s parenting of us, His shepherding of us, is His only concern? Like human parents, it may be a major concern but there are other things about which God must also be concerned. It is not God who makes us demigods; we do that ourselves. The substance of being human is seeking God. Is the substance of God the pursuit of mankind?
My worth does not lie in what I do but in my person. The way we live makes this difficult to grasp in terms of others and even more difficult in terms of ourselves. When we try to characterize another person we invariably call to mind what they have done. We are conditioned to look at accomplishments when we estimate others and ourselves. What, then, can we say of ourselves or others unless we list the things we or they have done? If we could not list any accomplishments would it mean that the worth of the person we are considering is negligible?
Maybe our approach to human worth is backward. Maybe we should begin such an approach by asking: What can we say about another (or ourselves) without any listing of accomplishments? The first thing we can say is that a person is alive. Life, in and of itself, gives great value to every human being. So much does life itself set our worth that Your Father deemed it worthy of saving. God’s supremely high estimation of His gift of life attaches untold worth to every individual regardless of what they have accomplished. Furthermore, there is in each of us great potential for the good, and for love.
Consideration of our accomplishments turns us inward and fuels our sense of self. But the out-flowing quest for the good, and the giving quality of love ignores self. This potentiality gives us great worth. Life itself, our potentialities, and Your saving will for mankind makes each person valuable as a person – not as a doer.
It’s a wonderfully uncomplicated thing to look at another simply as a vessel of life, or simply as the object of God’s great and compassionate love, or simply as one capable of containing goodness and sharing love. Regard for what a person has accomplished is courteous. Recognition is respectful. But it is not what one has done or will do that establishes a person’s inherent worth – except in the eyes of the world. Human ways are not God’s ways. For God to hold us dearly in His heartwe need not submit a list of accomplishments. It is not so much what we do that God loves, but what we are. We grow closer to God when we learn to accept this.
What is the “posture” of a Christian today? Is it bringing about God’s kingdom? Is it about doing His will; practicing one’s faith; or just continuing to “show up” in faithfulness? Ideally it is a way of being that never even thinks about “posturing” but includes all of the above.
I am still profoundly stunned and moved by the “posture” of the little old Jewish lady who loved God and fashioned her life around doing His will and keeping His laws but who did not believe in an after-life. I cannot help but think that the posture of not worrying or not focusing on an after-life and its rewards or punishments is the posture that should be cultivated and nourished by all Christians as well.
If the heavenly carrot was not dangled in front of us would we still be concerned with loving God and our neighbor? Would we follow His will and practice our faith? The only reason to do so would be out of love for God and recognition of His great love for us. It is difficult to love God without heaven getting in the way, but it is clear to me that this is the love of purest form.
The posture of a Christian thus should be doing good things for people because this is what You did, and we love You. You have shown us the way we are to live. Heaven is You and others. The “gates” have been opened. Our posture should be to love and follow the God now who beckons everyone to Himself – not to a later place called “heaven.”
If one sits down and reads the entire Old Testament one cannot helpbut be struck by the succession of prophets throughout the ages. A few thousand years are covered in those pages and it would seem that each age had its significant prophetic figure whose encounters with God provided the major fodder for the entire book: Noah, Moses, Abraham, Job, Ezekiel, Amos, Jeremiah, Ruth, Esther, Isaiah, Daniel, David, etc., etc. But after You, the times of the prophets seems to have ended; and I’m wondering why while I contemplate the great need for a Jeremiah in our own times.
Billy Graham and the pope notwithstanding, where are thegreat individuals who, as of old, proclaim the necessities of a straight path to You? I have a feeling that they are being drowned out by the noisy prophets of so many other worldly concerns. Their voices are small and our attention span is waning. Yet isn’t that the exact scenario of the times when prophets appeared in days of old? If the time is ripe, where are they?
If we began a new testament, a third testament, what, first of all, would be the precedent for it, and, secondly, who would its prophet be?We might say the precedent for the Old Testament was the establishment of man’s relationship with God; and the precedent for the New Testament was the globalization of that establishment. But what would be the precedent for a third testament? And who might be the prophets filling its pages?
I would suggest the precedent would be an exposition on attaining spiritual depth; and its prophets might be the likes of Cardinal Newman, Eric Bonheoffer, Pope John XXIII, Thomas Merton, and Mother Teresa. It’s been a couple thousand years since You walked this earth. Maybe as the ultimate fulfillment of the prophets before You it would be redundant to expect new ones, but it does so often seem that the world needs powerful personalities who will set our paths straight.
Over 100 years ago Mark Twain wrote: “If Jesus Christ was here right now the one thing He would not be is a Christian.” In the context of that era one cannot be entirely sure what Twain meant. But 100 years later I can speculate that it had something to do with the difference between Your movement as You envisioned it and how it exists in the present.
The truth is, that statement could have been made any time during the past 2000 years – but there is a certain lack of validity to it based on what appears to be a misunderstanding. You still. Most emphatically, desire the means and outcomes of Your movement. But (and this must be what Twain refers to) we humans, over time, have done a fine job of muddling it up.
If what You taught by word and action is the epitome of being Christian, why would You want to be less? And why, in fact, are we less? Our human nature and free will may assent in theory to the perfection of Your movement in our lives, but we allow so many other things to get in its way that we become far less than ideal Christians. Our lives seem like an uphill struggle to reach that kind of perfection.
If You were to come back here right now I think Mark Twain would have to eat his words. You would teach us and show us again the message of Your movement which came to be known as Christianity. The fact that we, right here and now, want to be good Christians is a testimony that You are with us in the present. What You taught and showed us still has meaning and promise no matter how badly our own thoughts, words, and actions mess it up. On the contrary, if You were here right now the one thing You would be is exactly who You were 2000 years ago.
You told Your disciples to beware of the leaven of Herod and of the Pharisees. I can’t help but think of this in political terms.
From the time I was little I never could quite understand the great interest people (particularly men) seemed to have in politics and politicians. Nothing to me seemed quite so boring and uninteresting. Six decades later I still feel the same way. I vote. I read a little about the issues and candidates – but only out of a sense of duty, not because I’m much interested.
In my own life I don’t let the leaven of the Herods or the Pharisees of our time influence me very much. I never have!I think the reason is because I see these people as too concerned with their own roles in the operation of the world and of promulgating their ideas of how it should be done. They seem to be so detached from the world of the spirit. Their leaven is capable of changing the appearance of our souls - which is scary. Like the Pharisees of old the Pharisees of our timesare people who manipulate the spiritual to suit themselves. They promulgate their manipulations as gospel and judge others by it. I often find myself in that category, but I realize its pitfalls.
What should be the leaven in our lives instead of politics and doctrinal fundamentalism is Your life, Your example, and what You taught. The importance of being able to differentiate between these two leavens in our daily lives is what You warned Your disciple about.
One of the things that happens when one gets to his/her old age is that one begins to think more deeply about life in general and about one’s own life in particular - and about relationships. The wonderment we had when younger as to why so many societies place their leadership in the hands of elders becomes clearer. Wisdom, in varying degrees, does come (or should) with age.
A particular realization of this comes in the manifestation of special enlightenment about the relationship between a husband and wife who have spent nearly their entire lives together. As we go on surviving and friends and relatives with whom we’ve had long relationships start dropping like flies from what remains of our lives, we come to the realization that through it all – and especially now – after You, our spouse is the channel of everything. When that spouse is gone we are about as desolate as we were when we emerged form the womb.
My wife and I have had plenty of ups and downs for almost 50 years, but as I grow older the more clearly I realize what a part of me she has become. Other than my children, who are gone from our home and have families of their own, who is there to not only tell me but to show me they love me; and who is there to smile at me and hug me; and who is there to care about and shape the way I act, the things I say, my habits and idiosyncrasies; and who is there from whom to derive feedback about how I’m doing; and who is there to forgive me; who is there to care for and nurture me, to tell me how to dress; to point out my faults; to ignore my impatience and my busyness? Conversely, who provides me with the opportunity to do the same for her?
When one first gets married they tell you that the half of the marriage that each party brings will, in time, grow to be one. It’s true! Without my wife, half of me would be gone and the remaining half wouldn’t know how to act without her.