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If we are willing to do it, daring to look at ourselves reveals what God sees and has always seen; our internal gazing makes us understand divine patience and the gift of grace in new and profound ways.
Some people live full lives, but far too many people merely survive; they get up in the morning and go through a routine, returning home to prepare to do the same thing one more time. The “religion of creation,” a phrase used by Wes Howard Brook to describe what Jesus the Christ brought to this world, encourages us to lean on the arms and the teachings of Jesus, as opposed to acquiescing to the temptation to adopt the ethos of the religion of empire, which demands that we lean on the state. In leaning on the state, we learn to survive because we have to learn that or perish, but in our learning, too many of us forget that God wants us to survive, yes, but to push past the barriers the state and we ourselves put up before us, and thrive, so that we can “taste and see that the Lord is good.” God did not put us here merely to “get by.” God put us here to inhale the beauty of God’s holiness and thus, be inspired to become our best selves, warts, weaknesses, mistakes, and all.
It is risky to thrive; thriving demands that we take chances. It demands that we learn to forgive ourselves and to use our pasts as part of the roadmap for how we move forward. Thriving means we develop a closeness with God that keeps us with our ears and hearts inclined toward God so that we can what and who we really are, and thus accept and cherish grace all the more.
Howard Thurman said that the religion of Jesus is a technique of survival for the oppressed. The presence of Jesus is a lethal weapon against the propaganda that the state wields against the oppressed, propaganda which includes the state’s opinion that those who are oppressed are somehow less than human and thus deserving of the second-class treatment they receive.
When we are in survival mode, we accept the state’s opinion, but something glorious happens when we look inside ourselves, with the Christ guiding us, and see that in spite of our issues, that we truly are fearfully and wonderfully made. At that moment, we can hear the voice of God affirming us, regardless of what the world, our parents or anyone else has said against us. As we hear the divine affirmation of God, we understand that we can and must begin to use who we are and what we are to please God. In so doing, we please our spirits, which yearn to soar above and pass those things, people, and situations which have historically convinced us that we have little to offer.
The late Katie Geneva Cannon wrote “All interactions either encourage wholeness or brokenness. All experiences either nourish religious exposure to truth or snuff it out. Oneness with God progresses from outward life to the inward life, to outward life in community. ”When we take the risk of looking inward, risking being shocked at what we learn about ourselves, we put ourselves to be in the position to be freed from the enslavement of self-hatred and self-doubt. We take risks; we look for the wings within us which God put there at the moment of our creation, and we decide that we are ready to fly.
I sometimes get the feeling that God is waiting – for me, for sure, but also for a lot of people to get out of their canoes, their safe places, in which they have survived for so long. Nobody pleases God by surviving. Nobody even gets to experience the joy of faith by deciding to stay safe. Nobody has the strength to challenge injustice by deciding to stay safe. Deciding to remain safe might be called selfish because we opt to incubate our own insecurity rather than to look beyond ourselves and do what God has gifted us to do to help “the least of these.”
In this current political season, merely surviving is not enough. God needs us to thrive, to try God in a way we never have before. Those who decide to continue to survive will never move from the side of the pool, but those who decide that they want to thrive will jump into the water of life, often so deep that they have to lean on God in ways they have never before. In so doing, they will learn and rejoice at the knowledge that God’s love for us and belief in us did not evaporate because we have fallen short so many times. It is in the decision to thrive that we feel the power of God’s love most acutely.
God is waiting for more of us to jump into the water, to get out of our boats and jump into places and spaces we have feared thus far. God will be there to help us learn to tread water and survive in our new normal, but then God will let us go and watch us as we move forward with the undertow which wants to bring us down and bring the sunshine of newness into our lives, we, who are thriving for the first time. And God will rejoice.
Amen and amen.
I recently heard Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor describe her experience of having a stroke in a Ted Talk. She is a scientist who had done work in studying the brain, encouraged to do so because she had grown up with a brother who suffered from schizophrenia. She wanted to know why he got that disease, and why other people suffered from bipolar disease, depression and other mental illnesses. She wanted to know what happened in the brain that caused such catastrophic results.
She says that one day she awakened to a terrible headache. The pain was behind one of her eyes. It was bad, but she thought that perhaps she had just been working too hard. She got up and began her day. Periodically she noticed that her body seemed different, that she was walking differently and seeing things differently, but she pressed on. She got into the shower and finally realized that something was terribly wrong. One of her arms was not working properly. She realized she was having a stroke.
She got out of the shower, head still pounding, left arm pretty useless, but decided she had to call for help. It took her 45 minutes to go through stack of business cards to find that of one of her colleagues. She needed that card with his name and number because she could not remember her office number or any other number, for that matter.
When she finally found the card, it took her another half hour to dial the number. She could see the number, but she couldn’t find it on the phone; she had to resort to looking at the way the figures “squiggled” so that she could find similar “squiggles” on the phone. When she finally got through, she thought she was OK but after she said “hello” and her colleague responded, she realized that she could not understand what he was saying; his words were a garbled mess. And she realized, listening to herself, that her words sounded garbled as well.
The phone call was enough to alert her colleague that something was wrong. He called an ambulance, which took her to the hospital. It had been four hours since she had awakened with that headache. As she was put into the ambulance, she noticed that her body felt alternatively like dead weight and nothing. She lost consciousness and remembers thinking that she was about to die.
She didn’t die. She woke up in intensive care, tubes everywhere. Two weeks after her stroke, she had surgery to remove the golf-ball sized blood clot which had been the culprit.
It took eight years for her to completely recover.
It was during her recovery period that her fascination with the brain grew with a fierceness. She had made studying the brain her life’s work, and with a twist of irony, her own brain had given her fodder for her research.
She began to understand the brain in a new way. The brain, she said, has two different hemispheres which function independently of each other. The left brain is the more analytical; it is from that hemisphere that our capacity to speak and use language comes. The right hemisphere is responsible for our emotional selves, and she said that her stroke allowed her to live in both hemispheres in a conscious way, unlike she had ever done before.
What she realized is yes, that we are, as the psalmist said, “fearfully and wonderfully made,” but she also realized that we can choose from which side of our brain that we want to live. Living in the left side of the brain makes us individualistic and reclusive and isolated but living in or from the right side makes us connect with each other in ways that are life-giving. It is from right-side living that we form and protect and cherish community, something which makes the world a better place.
Her words were and are intriguing. She said we can choose the way we want to live, that we can choose which hemisphere we want to dominate our existence. God, it seems, created a masterpiece in the human body. That we become aware of who we are and what God has equipped us to do is what we do with what God has created.
Every day upon waking, I mutter a prayer of thanksgiving for waking up healthy and in my right mind, but this woman’s talk made me realize that I am not making the most of my capacity to choose the kind of life God wants for me. I would bet that many of us are like that. In our finite selves there are infinite possibilities which we can realize by consciously working both the left and right sides of our brains. God’s master plan of creation has put before us lives that most of us have not explored.
Not exploring is to our own detriment. We are fearfully and wonderfully made, after all, and God wants us to know and live in that truth.
Amen and amen.
The moment we are born, we become targets of an ever-present malevolent spirit that hovers over all of us.
That spirit tells us, through words and actions of others whom we love and of those whom we do not even know, that we are not worthy, not enough, not deserving of a good life.
In her book, White Women’s Christ and Black Women’s Jesus, Jacquelyn Grant describes how she and her siblings grew up knowing and saying the name of Jesus. She says that “the love and kindness, the giving and sacrifices, and the community service and political interest we witnessed in our parents were in the name of Jesus.” Her parents, she said, “lived out the theology of somebodiness,” conveying to their children that they were special to and cherished by God, something they were to hold onto in spite of how the world would deride and denigrate them because of their color and/or gender.
Many to most of us have heard the words “you will never amount to anything” in some form, words spoken to us or to someone we know by someone we love. The words and companion behavior are deadly to one’s soul. Like a drill, they bore a hole in our very souls, providing a path for any negative word or opinion to traverse in order to feed our wound of insecurity and self-loathing which is often the result of the put-down of our worth.
The feeling of being “nobody” or “not enough” follows us, sits with us, and reminds us of its presence. In the spiritual space of feeling like a nobody, we decrease and minimize ourselves. How must the world suffer because of so many people sitting in saucers of despair because they do not know their worth?
It is only in making the decision to deepen our relationship with God that we are able to get the antidote to the spiritual disease called insecurity. For a while, most of us will not pray and ask God for help in the fight to become whole – largely because we do not know how broken we are until we decide to look at ourselves honestly. We don’t ask pertinent questions about ourselves (to ourselves) because we don’t want the answer. Truth is painful. But when we decide that something is wrong, something is off-balance, as we look at how people who do have a sense of being somebody and who move and live in that knowledge, we begin to tentatively seek God as we never have before. The words of the prophet Jeremiah give God’s promise: that we will find God when we search for God with all of our heart. Ironically, it is when we reach our limit of spiritual and emotional fatigue, so tired that all we can do is look for God, that we are our strongest.
God listens. God hears the ebb and flow of our words which express our desire to have a different mindset, a different way of walking and relating to life and to the people with whom we interact. At those moments, we are rather like Hagar, banned to the wilderness by a jealous wife because of who she was. God did not abandon Hagar but heard her cries…and came to her. God does the same for us. In the experience of prayer – which becomes different when we are in these spaces because we are more prone not only to talk to God but to be quiet and listen for and to God, God whispers. We incline our ear as we begin to realize something is happening. God whispers to us, showing us people and situations, which will help us see and learn what we must see and learn. God gently yet relentlessly toward the Truth – which is that we are all somebody, special to and worthy of God’s love. In that whispering, God begins to show us parts of ourselves that we have never known because in our sense of being nobody, we assumed that there was nothing deeper to us or in us that was important.
Recently, I heard a judge talk about how a woman who was down on her luck because of drug use was asked to write an essay (an exercise this judge asked for of many offenders.) The first sentence of her essay was, “I am battling a terminal disease. Twenty-four years ago, I was told I had a terminal disease and had only months to live.” The judge stopped her. “Can you read that last sentence again?” The woman repeated it and the judge said, “Do you not hear what you said? Do you not see that you are so much more, and can do much more, than you think you can? Do you realize that you have enormous strength? Nobody lives for 24 years with a diagnosis of a terminal disease.” Of course, some people do, but the point of the judge’s statement is that this woman was living in a place of fear, insecurity, self-pity and “nobodiness,” giving her subliminal justification for her drug use.
The judge said that watching the woman’s face was like watching a light come on. This poor soul hadn’t thought of her victories, or worth or her strength, but had instead opted to live in a dungeon of despair for years. She believed she was a nobody and so she had lived way below her spiritual and emotional capacity for years.
We are somebody because God made us. It does not matter who has said what to us; their opinions do not trump God’s genius in making us somebody. Our worth is not determined by our race, color, gender, sexuality, emotional health or illness; it is not determined by the thickness of our lips or the width of our hips; it is not determined by our level of education or the jobs we do. Our worth was created and built into us at the moment of our conception. The moment of birth puts us all in the crosshairs of that malevolent spirit which seeks to beat us down, but God is greater than that spirit and yearns for us to realize that the malevolent spirit is a lie.
We know when we are moving away from feeling like nobody to knowing we are somebody. We can feel it. As Hagar knew God was with her as she sat in a bad place and space with her son, we, too, know when some stubborn part of us has been released and we begin to embrace the theology of “somebodiness.” We live the words of the cherished hymn, “Amazing Grace:” I once was lost but now I’m found. Was blind, but now I see!”
We are somebody, no matter what.
Amen and amen.