I was telling Brendan about someone I knew in a previous parish. She had been a successful real estate agent. Her business kept her from regular attendance on Sundays. Her poor health forced an undesired retirement. Sickness also continued her absence from Sunday worship. But since she was forced to slow down, I could at least go visit her.
During one of my visits she said, “Just feel so useless. I can’t do anything.” I responded, “You can pray. And there’s nothing more important than that.”
I think I told her the truth. Prayer is one of the principal human tasks. It’s central to everything. I trust that idea might be difficult to adopt for some, especially for any who have cultivated a career with more zeal than cultivating contemplation.
I shared this story with Brendan in the midst of a discussion about end of life issues. I was focusing Wendell Berry’s essay title “What are People For?” with special reference for the sick. “What are Sick People For?” Prayer, I thought, was a suitable answer.
Hearing my story Brendan immediately responded, “She doesn’t have to do anything. She glorifies God simply by existing.” I wanted to argue. Then I realized I shouldn’t. He was right.
That moment helped me sense how uncritically I had adopted an anthropology that reduces people to what they do. We meet people and want to know who they are. We often ask, “What do you do?” That may be an interesting subject, but the real question we have for most new people is simply, “Who are you?” (or as my toddler would ask, “What is that his name?”).
Another evaluative procedure for new relationships is observation. We look at someone’s stuff: clothes, accessories, technology (i.e. smartphone or tablet of preference), or vehicle. I’m part of this problem, too. I’m trying to repent. This problem reduces people to what they purchase, what they consume.
Demographics, metrics, economics, institutions, and governments define us and classify us as producers—what we do—and consumers—what we buy. We are reduced to our aptitudes and appetites. The problem with this approach is its tendency to dehumanization. We have aptitudes and appetites, but we are more than these.
One of Dallas Willard’s aphorisms is an apt remedy. “You are an unceasing spiritual being with an eternal destiny in God’s great universe.”
Change the pronoun from second person to first, and that statement can be a great help in the department of motor vehicles, the tax office, or a mega mart.
We are, each of us, “unceasing spiritual beings.” And those who are in the Church—the Body and Bride of Christ, the sphere of profound engagement with his Kingdom—are especially among those who have “an eternal destiny in God’s great universe.”
That destiny begins now, where we are and as we are. This is, in the spirit of this series, part of what I take to be the hope that Christian disciples offer our world. This hope, this destiny, is possible because of unfettered access to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul famously writes in Galatians 3:28, “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” There is much in this verse that can’t be covered here. Stuck in my mind is Fr. Thomas Hopko’s remark on this passage: “In Christ, a female Gentile slave has the same relationship with the God of Israel that a free Jewish male has.”
Division of labor, distribution of gifts, and exercise of authority are contorted and controverted issues in the church as we continue to wrestle with Paul’s idea. There has to be an “in crowd,” right?
I’d like to go on from here. Just like I wanted to argue with Brendan, I want to argue for my favorite theories of division of labor, distribution of gifts, and the exercise of authority. But I won’t.
I sense a profound need to stop, wait, and stare in staggering amazement at the blunt fact that we exist. We exist as an intelligent portion of God’s creation. We can know that we exist. To this knowledge we can add faith, hope, and love and come to thank God for our existence. “I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have being” (Ps. 146:2).
From this most common of all grounds we can, together, male and female, continue to give thanks that we can call the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, “Our Father.” Both words are important. We are allowed familial access to the Jewish Messiah’s God and Father. That access comes from within the family. We have it personally, but not singularly.
Existence and access: these are two aspects of an expansive equality in which in which we stand and from which we can honor and bless our differentiations and distinctions. These, too, come from God.
And they point us back to God, in a rich, symphonic diversity of praise through Christ, with Christ, and in Christ. To him be glory forever, amen.