Extraordinary Love

For more than a decade, the “treasure in clay jars” passage has been one of my favorites. (See the quote in the sidebar on the righthand side of your screen.) But I haven’t made a clear connection between this passage and the theme of my blog (“blessed by the kindness of my fellow travelers.”)

As I was reading through some earlier articles of mine, I came across this Bible study that I wrote for the Virginia Advocate on the passage assigned by the International Lesson Series for March 29, 2009: Ezekiel 36:22-32. Since I know not all of you are going to click through on the scripture link 😉 here are verses 22-24 to give you an idea of how this passage relates to the passage from 2 Corinthians:

Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. I will sanctify my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them; and the nations shall know that I am the Lord, says the Lord God, when through you I display my holiness before their eyes.

The paragraphs below appear by permission, printed just as they were published in the March 2009 issue of the Virginia Advocate. They recount an experience from when I served as one of several teaching assistants to Dr. J. Kameron Carter. Among other duties, we each led at least one section of students in an hour long seminar to complement Dr. Carter’s lectures in Christian Theology at Duke Divinity School.

In class one day, one of the students was unable to contain himself. “I don’t think that we take suffering seriously at all. We are too busy. We always want to move on too quickly, and get on with the ‘more important’ things.”

“You’re right,” I agreed. “Other people’s suffering makes us uncomfortable, and often seems like an interruption. As Christians we are called to be present with others in their suffering. Unfortunately we have a lot of ground to cover today,” and then, with an ironic smile, I added, “So – moving on…”

The class burst into laughter and we did indeed move on. But the student’s anguished plea stayed with me in the days that followed. If I wasn’t willing to dwell with the pain of the students in the learning process, then I was failing to adequately proclaim the gospel in my teaching. Then it came to me – I had often asserted that every theological question we ask is at bottom a pastoral question – here was an opportunity to demonstrate that as a way of attending to my students’ needs.

When the day came for us to meet together as a class again, I was so excited! I was looking forward to what our time together might hold. And then the thought came to me: “Now everyone will see what a wonderful teacher I am.”

Right away I had to laugh at myself. What a sad little clay jar I was, wanting to make it all about me. But, as Paul reminds us, “we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord… this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” (2 Cor, 4:4, NRSV)

The lesson in the end was not a demonstration of my (imagined) extraordinary power, but of God’s: God who inspired the student to care enough to interrupt the lesson, God who kept the student’s complaint ever before me in the days that followed, and God who opened the hearts of all the students to participate in the exercises I prepared with trust and hopefulness. Above all, the lesson focused on the extraordinary power of God’s love for us.

Sometimes the exhilaration of bringing the good news to others can tempt us to forget that the good news is not about us and how wonderful we are – it is about God’s wonderful love for all people.

I am grateful to have been a witness to God at work in and through ordinary events and broken individuals of mixed motives – demonstrations of a tireless love that are not for any one person’s sake, nor even for the sake of any one faith or nation, but for every living creature.  How wonderful!  How extraordinary!

The beam in my eye

Every parent has their own discipline strategies. When I was growing up, my father’s approach was to quote scripture. Let me assure you, when you hear “Honor your father and mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God has given you,” coming out of the mouth of your own Dad, it sounds more like a threat than a promise!
Dad had a scripture for almost every occasion (that I could not hate my brother or sister and love God was particularly unnerving), though he was not above using Dr. Seuss when an appropriate Biblical text could not be found. His real go-to passage was the Sermon on the Mount. I remember many times being told that I wasn’t adding an inch to my height by worrying, or (when I was gloating over my good behavior) that I shouldn’t let my right hand know what the left was doing. The one that really stuck with me, though, and became foundational for my spiritual growth, was the ready proof text against tattling – the admonition to first take the beam out of my own eye before taking the mote out of my sister or brother’s eye. (“What’s a mote, Dad?” “Don’t talk back! Honor your father…” Yikes!)
While I have not been using scripture in this way with my own daughter, there is something to be said for growing up hearing these verses every day:
Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.
Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, `Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Matt. 7:1-5, RSV)

The result for myself – and I think for my sister and brother as well, has been to live lives of introspection – so that, when we find ourselves judging another, we are conditioned to stop and instead take stock of ourselves. No matter how long we have walked with God, Teresa of Avila asserted, we can always find fresh insights in the first room of the Interior Castle – the room of self-examination.
So, after years of doing my inadequate best to live by the rule of Matthew 7:1-5, it has been a great surprise to discover a way to read the passage anew. For this I have to thank Dr. J. Kameron Carter of Duke Divinity School, who recently blogged about Haiti and the theodicy question. I encourage you to read it yourselves! As I read it, and considered his suggestion that we often frame the question of “Why does God let suffering occur?,” as a way of avoiding our own culpability, it occurred to me that Carter was providing us with a reread of Matthew. In these instances, when we judge God, we are plucking a supposed speck out of God’s eye, blinded by the log that is in our own. Which takes the defense of God from an abstract “who can see well enough to judge God?,” instead concretizing the question to one of self-examination – “Have I lived in such a way to enable my faith community to embody Christ in the world well? How have we failed to embody Christ for others?” It is not piety to turn our eyes to God in order to take the attention off our own destructive behavior. In fact, it is downright unscriptural.
This idea of Dr. Carter’s and my reflection upon it has inspired me to take a totally different direction with Sunday school this Lent than I had intended. Lent is traditionally a time for confession – that is, for self-examination – in the Church year. We will be focusing on how we as Church embody Christ, and how we fail to embody Christ – how do we cause, prevent, alleviate, or exacerbate the suffering in the world? I hope that, if you find yourself in Durham, you will be able to join us one Sunday morning at 10am in the parlor of Trinity UMC, as we reframe the “problem of suffering” question in light of our identities as members of the Body of Christ.