Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Imago Dei Part 3

I spoke today about the theological, psychological and even historical significance of Imago Dei to a room full of students and leaders. It's not as boring as it sounds. At the end of the talk, I suggested that if we understand and embrace that human beings, all of them, have immeasurable worth before they do anything right, wrong, amazing or annoying, then everything about our lives and relationships (and culture) changes.

We stop trying to size each other up. 
We stop trying to sexually entice. 
We stop trying to impress, wow and prove we're worth having around.
We stop including or rejecting on the basis of income, race, gender, disposition, body-shape, facial-symmetry and IQ. 
Imago Dei frees us of all that. There's nothing left to prove.

Afterward, numerous people complimented the talk. Some compared this year's conference with previous years' favorably. One man compared my and the other speakers' teachings with another notable conference, and the band with another conferences' band, saying that the teaching was "at least as good" and that the band was "even better". There have even been a few "best ever" comments thrown in.

I took all the words with a grain of salt. 
Or did I?

If I'm honest with myself, I must admit that I listened to the feedback as one does when he is trying to figure out if what he produces has any worth in the eyes of others. In other words, part of me succumbed to the very game that I had just said into a microphone that Imago Dei frees us from. It's so subtle, but no less real. I confidently suggested to hundreds of people ideas such as young women being freed from provocative dress because their sexuality isn't their value, but then essentially lowered the neckline on my intellect in hopes that someone would notice my philosophical cleavage. 

Creepy metaphor. Sorry. 
But at least my confession is pure: There is still an active part of me trying to get people to agree I have worth. I just use a different tactic. I'd like to think I am relaxing about all this and that it matters less all the time. And that may be the case. But even typing that may just be me trying to get you to be impressed with my burgeoning maturity.

Everything is comparison. We're addicted to finding the worth of a thing so we can know whether we should have it, fix it or reject it. And all of this is determined by comparison. Get a good deal on your new TV? How do you know? You don't. The pricing is arbitrary. What should a TV cost? That's unknowable! You're stuck comparing the price you paid up against MSRP, what someone else paid and how it performs in its price category. Doesn't everything work this way?

How do we know we're doing a good job at work? 
How do we know we're attractive?
How do we know if our grandmothers are smart? 
How do we know if our faith is strong? 

It's all a comparison game where we hold one thing up against something similar, or up against agreed-upon guidelines, and decide what to value and what to reject. It's as if we're admitting that we don't know what anything or anyone is worth until we line them up and see which ones provide the best results.
It's hard impossible to imagine life without comparison. Even trying to do so is a comparison between this world and that one. How do we function without the security of anchors telling us what to think and feel about everything? And in a society that only values productivity and proven worth, it's going to be incredibly difficult to value human beings for simply being. It's going to be hard to learn not to apply our shopping savvy to ourselves and others. And it will, perhaps, be even harder to believe that God is whole enough to love unconditionally all people, regardless of our (in)ability to earn that love. We've really never seen anything like that. 

In the midst of so much anxious clamoring for approval and acceptance for what we produce, I'm still drawn to that kind of life and love. I still want that Kingdom over this one. The way will be hard to learn, but in comparison to the one we're addicted to now, it'll be worth it.

When we compliment each other, think about ourselves or try and make decisions about our circumstances- let's try and embrace it all for what it is. Apart from a comparison. On its own. What if we worked at being people who can see value, not just in things, but in each other, without doing any estimating or comparing? Because I think it may be only then, when we stop referencing some standard or other person to provide us scale, that we are truly seeing the person in front of us at all.

“As long as we continue to live as if we are what we do, what we have, and what other people think about us, we will remain filled with judgments, opinions, evaluations, and condemnations. We will remain addicted to the need to put people and things in their “right” place. To the degree that we embrace the truth that our identity is not rooted in our success, power, or popularity, but in God’s infinite love, to that degree can we let go of our need to judge.”
                                                                  Here and Now, Henri Nouwen

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Words is hard.

There have been a few key ideas that I have wanted to coax out of my brain cave for a while, only getting to tinker with them on sunday mornings. So, I have committed to spend my downtime at this conference to writing some of it out. To a large degree, just a couple days in, I have been successful.

But, at times, it has also been brutal.

I love writing stories. Stories have a flow to them and take you from world to world. The narrating voice gets to tell you things you wouldn't otherwise know, while the characters pipe in here and there for us to get to relate to them and know them more and more. It's a journey, and I love playing tour guide.
Yet I'm a teacher. I like to explain things, to take things apart and hand the elements to those standing around and uncover, to whatever extent I'm able, what was shrouded in ignorance.

I was careful to say "yet I'm a teacher," because I didn't want to say "but" as though being a storyteller and a teacher are at odds. Much the opposite- teachers and storytellers share a common goal of opening minds (their own mind opened in the bargain, too).
However, the storyteller and the teacher sit in different chairs in my head. The teacher sits in a wooden chair that makes that attention grabbing moan on the classroom floor when it moves. It has ninety degree angles and isn't interested in providing comfort. It's the place for truth telling to occur. But the storyteller sits in one of those beanbag chairs thats wadded atop a support pole, with wheels on each of the five feet and a Zune dock mounted on the head rest. It's covered in stickers from bands no one has ever heard of and smells like patchouli. And, it's motorized, running exclusively on bear urine. Never heard of one of those? That's because the storyteller just made that up. But the teacher helped him spell patchouli.

It's hard to strike a meaningful balance between instruction and inspiration. It's like being responsible for both playing a game on the field while also providing broadcast commentary. One without the other is some pretty boring television. They're complimentary, working when they're balanced. Perhaps I should admit to myself I'm just not very balanced.

So if I'm ever published, it will be because I figured out how to sit in both chairs. If I'm not, it'll probably be because in the middle of the difficulty, rather than focusing, I blogged about motorized chairs that run on bear waste.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Imago Dei Part 2

While reading about my family roots a few years back, I found out that Daugherty is thought to roughly translate as, “troublemaker”. I rolled my eyes and smiled. This was, for a few teachers back in school, a favorite monicker for me. I wasn’t a terrible kid or anything, but “troublemaker” was leveled at me enough to stick. Reading the meaning of name made me realize that when teachers were drawing out a punitive “Mr. Daaaugherrrrtyyyy” through clenched teeth, with their arms folded and their brow creased, they were calling me the name in a second language.
Our names have interesting, and sometimes hilarious meaning tucked within them. In Africa a couple months ago, I was given a tribal name. From now on, in a remote village in Western Kenya, I am known as Pastor Stephen Daugherty Odyambo. That is, Pastor Crowned Troublemaker Born-at-night. The local pastors shared the etymology of their own names with me. Some of them meant “born during a drought.” A couple of them had last names that connoted “Mom had me during the weeding season”. One man, laughing at himself so contagiously that he had us all wiping our eyes, told us that his last name meant, “born the year the hippos attacked”.
Our surnames tell a story. Smiths, Bakers, Wrights, Taylors, Fiddlers; they’re all vocations. Then there are names like Goodman, Wise, Armstrong, Smart. These and hundreds of others describe traits of the person. There are even names like Hill, Woods, Atwood, Fields and Bush that say something about the geography of the family at one point in history.
Our names are really an endearing glimpse into where we come from and what our family has been part of. Even the story of the first human, Adam (which comes from the Hebrew word for soil) is about a man with recent history in his name. 
It's interesting that after the curse described in Genesis 3, Adam is stuck working the soil and producing crops via hard labor. He is now condemned to attach his life to what he produces. His name went from an interesting blurb about his humble origins to announcing that what he does is what he is. 

This was, ostensibly, the beginning of people forgetting Imago Dei and believing Imago do.
It’s hard, to this day, for us to disbelieve that we are not merely what we’ve done, produce or come from. Really hard. I admit it I struggle with this a ton. And I struggle helping others with it as well. For every effort for myself or others that I employ to believe we are more than what society cares to measure, there are a million superficial reinforcements to the contrary. Even coming subtly from faith. The very structure (or perceived structure) of churches can accidentally (or, very much on purpose) reinforces that some work, some people, some backgrounds, some pedigrees, some results are of more worth than others. I recently had an oceanographer say to me, upon finding out I was a pastor, "Oh, now that's some real work...". Everything seems to fed the delusion that Imago do holds more life than Imago Dei.

In a meritocracy, our utility is our value. In this scenario, men lose their job, and themselves. Simultaneously. They fall not just into unemployment, but into depression. Women find out their offering to society is somehow less than another's, and as a consequence believe they are less than the other offerer. They no longer find joy in their work, their rest, or themselves. Children grow up anxiously assured that they will most likely be failures, no matter how much money and letters they can attach to their name. It's never going to be enough. For all of us, a failure to understand Imago Dei renders all our work and all our actions subject to anxious scrutiny, and the verdict will always be "not enough."

Some observations on a failure to embrace the peaceable, anxiety-free reality of Imago Dei:
  • Our presentation, within the meritocracy of Imago do, MUST be better than others'. This means loving people will be impossible, because we can't give ourselves to people when we're trying to conquer them.
  • We can't rest or sabbath, because to stop is to die. Must. Keep. Going.
  • We can't enjoy our work, because our soul is desperately feeding off our work's quality. It's not pleasurable to live in a life-or-death scenario.
  • We can't celebrate the work of others, because their work threatens us.
  • We measure our success by the failure of others, which is so childish we can barely admit the practice to ourselves. But, others fall, and something in us celebrates this new chance to "win".
  • We have second conversations running in our heads as we speak to people, waiting to get to drop impressive names, amounts, experiences, degrees, etc. Which means we're not loving because we're not listening.
  • We believe...and then expect...and then demand that certain people serve us, based on the presumed worth of their industry, education or role in society. Classes and castes. It's a tired game we keep playing outside of Eden. Just watch how some people act toward their pizza delivery guy versus how they act during a chance encounter with a celebrity.
  • We believe God doesn't love us as much as he will at a later point, assuming we can keep up our personal production. And we reinforce to others a belief in God as the King of a Meritocracy; he loves those who prove themselves lovable, tolerates those who show promise, and hates those who he deems as worth-less. The pull on us of course is toward less worth, so we can never simply rest in Love. It must be tended to every day like a dying plant, sustained only by our diligence. In other words, within Imago do, we are god.

Here's hoping that what I have written here is better than most anything else written on the subject.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Imago Dei Part 1

"God created humanity in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them." Genesis 1:27

This passage serves as the backbone for the doctrine Imago Dei, (The Image of God.)

Human beings are made out of all the same stuff as everything else (Genesis 2:19). All life is comprised of variously complex rearrangements of all the same materials. God makes things with essentially a Taco Bell mentality; Same ingredients, in multiple arrangements, with slightly different results and many different names. As a result, people and chickens and salamanders are all incredibly similar when you break them down. 

Yet, uniquely, we humans carry a divine spark that nothing else does. Something of our essence mirrors God's. We "look like" the invisible God. Men and women, no matter their socio-economic standing, their pedigree, education or ability to agree or disagree with the doctrine, are united both in their common origin and their uncommon privilege of bearing the essence of the Eternal. As the prophet Ron Burgundy might be heard to say, "I don't know how to put this, but [we're] kind of a big deal."

Every time I treat someone badly, am unjust or inequitable or rude or condescending or selfish; I'm not just being mean. In effect, I'm stepping out of divine likeness. I'm creating a divide and a hierarchy of values and merit, therefore rendering the Imago Dei unseeable while bringing an animalistic pecking order into the fore. My withholding of love, for whatever reason, breaks me away from what I am, and how life was designed to work. I fracture and shatter Imago Dei. 

This is, perhaps, why all religions have within their tenants at least hints about the right treatment of people. The ethic of reciprocity pops up in dozens of belief systems, even in the midst of other doctrines and beliefs that make the religions seems nothing alike. Sure, treating people with kindness is a good social construct and makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. The thing is, most humans don't stop there. It's generally agreed and celebrated that attitudes of self-sacrifice (something that's a little harder to explain from a survival-of-the-fittest perspective) is THE beautiful ideal. Doing unto others, EVEN IF the other doesn't do for you, is paramount. Rather than "me-first", it's mostly agreed that "you-first" is of higher value. 

Around the world, humanity's heroes are those who go beyond "nice", but give themselves for people, setting things right for others, even those who can't/won't repay. Something about this others-centered behavior reminds us we aren't just salamanders fighting to survive. It reminds us that there is hope beyond our tensions and relational breakdowns on every level. It reminds us that something in us is ultimately, kind of a big deal.

We treat each other badly, but wish we could do better. Perhaps the reason is, no matter your religion or lack, is that you inherently are like your God and have a natural longing to see humanity function optimally. All of us carry an "ought to" deep within ourselves. The way things should be, or a general sense that we could do better as a species. Sure, we have very different (and often counterintuitive) ideas of how this would be obtained, but the end goals are strikingly similar. Perhaps this is an innate sense of Imago Dei begging to see all people ultimately wrapped in love, each one peaceably giving their self to the other, with no one higher or lower or left out or rejected. All making the Invisible Creator visible in our own actions and attitudes. Perhaps it's echoes of Genesis 1:27 reverberating in the collective conscious we've forgotten we have.

In my estimate, sin is sin not just because it's "broken rules", but because sinful, selfish mistreatment of other people makes God harder to find in the matrix of human interaction.

Today, I'm striving (again) to be at peace with people in every thought, word and action.  I want to see the Invisible, and I suspect we all do. So I am going to have to fight all the pesky inclinations to treat people as somehow less valuable than myself as I search for Him. I'd hate to find out I've been hiding God from myself.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A prayer worthy of this Wednesday.

"O Lord, give me a good digestion as well as something to digest.
Give me health of body as well as the sense to keep it healthy.
Give me a holy soul, O Lord, which keeps its eyes on beauty and purity, so that it will not be daunted by seeing sin.
Give me a soul that knows nothing of boredom, groans and sighs.
Never let me be overly concerned for this inconsistent thing that I call me.
Lord, give me a sense of humor so that I may take some happiness from this life and share it with others."

From Catholic Book of Prayers, pg 209

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

All ya gotta do....

I recently heard someone answer a question about what they thought was necessary to "live eternally". The question is a complex one, especially since none of us have done it yet.
But I was more interested in the answer.

"All ya gotta do is become a Christian."

I've heard similar responses before. While I, of course, don't think it's a malicious answer, I also wonder if it's a very well thought-out one. But the response I have has inherent problems as well, and I haven't figured out how to resolve this yet.

My thoughts about this response, and what is represented in it, have to do with it being what seems to be an ignorant oversimplification. I'm highly suspicious when people respond to deep questions with an initial, "all ya gotta do...". But, then again, my response possibly qualifies for the oversimplification category as well.

It's said that there are somewhere between 20,000 and 35,000 Christian denominations worldwide, depending on how you delineate. These denominations are formed and informed by theological/doctrinal disagreements, the culture's influence on a particular Christian group, reactions to internal church polity, a charismatic leader that helps the masses see clearly what had been seemingly obfuscated before, and various other reasons. Even non-denominational churches are something of a denomination; existing in part in reaction to some of the felt limitations of denominationalism and setting out to be a legitimate expression of the faith along side so many thousands of others.

With this in mind, the question for the answer becomes "What kind of Christian do you gotta become?" Stating that one is a Christian begs for adjectives. I know this firsthand. Every time it comes up that I'm a pastor, I'm asked a follow up about which particular denomination. "Christian", for most people, is half an answer. It leaves unaddressed the brand in the same way saying "I eat cereal for breakfast" does.

Some may then reply, "Well, any kind of Christian, so long as you become one." But that raises issues. Such as, what about the kinds of Christians, numbered in the millions, that may disagree with your answer on the grounds that it's not a choice human beings, who possess no freewill in and of themselves, can make?
Or what about the millions who disagree on other grounds?
Or what about the Christians who think that one is a Christian only once one believes and endorses very specific doctrines that the person answering "all you gotta do..." hasn't and won't be believing and endorsing themselves?
At what point one "becomes" a Christian, or even ceases to be one, has enjoyed little consensus, ever. So, what do we mean when we say "become a Christian", and are we aware that the metrics for knowing one has become a Christian comprises a discussion (and often a debate) that predates the English word "Christian"?

It also makes me reflect: "If all I gotta do is become any kind of Christian, then why am I the kind of Christian that I am? How many of my beloved expressions and tenants of the faith are preferences, variously held and rejected by brothers and sisters of the faith around the world and through time? How often do I subtly (or overtly) judge the expression of my faith as superior, for whatever reason, to other expressions, while also saying 'any kind of Christian will do...'?"

The sheer number of denominations, now and ever, as well as the multiple (and sometimes contradictory) opinions I have held within myself about faith, should give me pause. Which is another way of saying keep me open minded. Which is another way of saying it keep me humble.

And this is where I realize my thoughts have inherent problems:
All of this drives me to want to give a better answer to questions pertaining to "entering life", "living eternally" and a host of other ways of putting it. It reminds me that, truly, Christianity isn't the point. Christ is. So the all ya gotta do centers on Christ, not Christianity. A focus on becoming a Christian, something that is nearly impossible to define, can create a very familiar human phenomenon which divides into 30-some-thousand separate movements.
Becoming a Christian as a solution fixates on the expression, rather than the Focus of the expression Himself.
This is not semantics, but a difference as vast as light and dark: Eternal life is found in Christ, not Christianity.

But what I am saying is very much open to interpretation. When I say Christ, I say it from the perspective of a wealthy, white, 2012 North Carolinian with presuppositions at work that I'll never identify. Of course, within those myriad denominations, men and women in history have said what I have said and set out to focus on Christ. But the expression of that focus came with values, then soon after rules, then all out doctrinal markers and lines in the sand for the denomination they inadvertently or deliberately began.

What do I do, and what have others done, when people pursue Christ and Christ alone, but it doesn't look like Christ to me? What do I think when someone's pursuit of Christ looks like a celebration (and isolation) for something less or other? Assume I got Christ cornered, while they missed him?

Everyone is focusing on Christ. Who ever started one of the thousands of denominations by saying "you know, let's take the focus off Jesus and make some arbitrary rules and systems instead. But we'll do it wearing these!"?

From outside of a particular method, and outside others' perception of Christ, it probably always looks like a fixation on religion.

For now, humility and love of others is the only resolution I have on this. In terms of offering a response to a question about living an eternal-quality of life, maybe it would sound something like,

"All you gotta do is follow Christ, understanding that your perception of him will be unique to you and your understanding of him in the gospels, will continue to evolve throughout your life, will be shaped by your wounds, your culture and the people important to you in the faith, as well as the quiet whisper of the Spirit himself. Your understanding of Him will nestle itself within a local expression that you will call your church, so don't forget this happens for everyone, and looks different every time. This understanding will unite you to people utterly unlike you around the world and through time, so long as you respect, mutually, that we are all doing the best we can to see the Christ past our own demands and delusions. The most tangible part of this for you will often be the expression of it, meaning that your brand of faith can accidentally get your devotion because human beings prefer maintenancing what they can control and hate trying to interact with the Mystery that is the Christ of the Church we comprise. You will naturally want to make the club the point, rather than the Reason this so-called club exists. So be on guard against arrogance and exclusionary thinking. This effort makes you what has been called a Christian. This is not a badge or a pass. It's shorthand for someone humbly seeking Christ, while they love others who are doing all this in a way that most resonates with them. That's all ya gotta do."