2 Corinthians 5:16-21 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
I now live in a new city in a new state. In this state (unlike my previous one) Spring is happening, so there are blooms, pollen, little bunnies in my backyard, and signs of new life everywhere. These cutesy little “new” experiences are often what we associate with newness and Christ. But I believe Lent invites us to think about it differently.
While I’m celebrating the new around me, I’m also carrying deep seated pain and anger. My life has been a mess for 9 months, and I’m finally, finally, finally leaving behind the oppression that sucked the life out of me. I have a new beginning, but I’m going to have to wade through the pain that has attached itself to my soul. Becoming new means that I have to get my hands really dirty to rip away the resentment that crushes my spirit so that I can breathe new air and be alive again in Christ. I have to die to this old way that no longer benefits me; and that requires the hard work of taking a good, long look at my pain, feeling it, working through it, and healing from it.
This week let’s think about the old ways in our lives that we have to die to: bitterness, pain, rage, resentment, unforgiveness, and everything that stops the heart of our soul from beating. We are called to live abundantly. While we think of newness being sweet and cute, sometimes becoming a new creation means taking on difficult and ugly tasks to separate us from evil and save our souls. Enter into the hard work of addressing, feeling, working through, and healing from all that suffocates us so that we can be a new creation in Jesus Christ.
When I was a kid I was pretty motivated to try to new things, to take on leadership roles, and to have the favor and approval of the teachers. Yes, I wanted to be praised by my teachers. I was that kid. I wanted the adults that I admired to be proud of me. I wanted their validation.
I think as children, we all want that to some degree. We want someone older and wiser to see our talent and potential and for them to approve of us. Maybe even be impressed.
As an adult in my late twenties I have had a difficult time putting my finger on why being showered with compliments by older adults has not set well with me. A “great job” or a congratulatory remark are wonderful and needed to make us feel like we are doing well and our work or contributions are appreciated. But an over selling of compliments feels belittling.
When people are in leadership roles it is so important to lift others up, letting them know that we see and appreciate their gifts. And if we have a platform and the power to provide opportunities to help our people share their skills, then we should certainly step aside and share the limelight. And then tell them they’re doing great.
That being said we need to be aware of the danger of falling into two pitfalls:
Constantly complimenting or showering with compliments gets awkward really quickly. It can be hard enough to learn how to graciously accept a compliment, but several in a row can be uncomfortable. Why? Because sometimes it can feel disingenuous, and even condescending. Go back to when you were a child and wanted validation from the adults and leaders around you. It felt good and helped you develop your strengths. Now, as an adult, not only have you gained more confidence, the fact that you have a job pertaining to your skills or a degree (or multiple degrees) is more than enough validation of your talents. Who are we to assume that we are so important that their confidence and self-worth hinges on our validation of their talents? Now let me pause here and say that I know as a well-intentioned leader who falls into this trap too often that this is not the mindset. I find myself over-doing it with compliments all the time, because I want to be someone’s cheerleader. I want that person to keep up the good work. We want those around us to feel supported (because we want support too, and we know how important it is.) And we should support them! But let’s be careful that we aren’t overdoing it. The people around us don’t need our approval to be amazing; they already are. And it’s okay if they know it. They shouldn’t have to feign ignorance or being embarrassed just so that we feel like they need us to help them feel confident. One can be confident and also humble and grateful for support. Don’t over sell it. Just show up and congratulate. They’re not helpless.
2. Taking credit for someone else’s success as if we “discovered” them is stealing what doesn’t belong to us. If we’re constantly talking about how we “gave” someone an opportunity while disguising it under how thrilled we are to see their talents shine, we need to stop and assess what’s going on. Why are we telling others about this story? Is it to brag on that person? Why are we including the detail about how we “noticed” that person? What does that add to the story? Why do we want our listener to know that we were the ones who acknowledged that person’s talent? Why are we inserting ourselves into a story that supposedly isn’t about us? Often times, we don’t even realize we’re doing it. We’re talking about a great experience within our lives where someone shared their gifts and talents when maybe they had never had an opportunity to do so before. That’s a great story to tell! But then we slip in details here and there about how we were the ones who noticed them, then we asked them, then we spent hours working with them, then we found the perfect opportunity for them… And suddenly the story is not about the other person, but about us. Sometimes minor details are necessary to get the whole picture. So here’s an example of a self-centered version of the story, and a more selfless version:
“Our company needed someone to take on a presentation for a big client. We had a small group of people on our team that always did the presentations, and they do a great job. But some of our talented people fly under the radar who might have some strengths they could bring to the table. I noticed Haley always takes good notes when I speak at our meetings, she asks me great questions, and she shares great research with me. I thought she had a lot of potential, so why don’t I ask her? She was very excited to that I gave her this opportunity, and she knocked it out of the park! I’m very impressed, she exceeded all of my expectations.”
“Our company needed someone… Haley always takes good notes, asks great questions, and she does her research. She had so much potential, so I asked her to do the presentation. She was very excited, and of course she knocked it out of the park! It was great to have her skills be recognized by so many people in our company and with our clients.”
In the second narrative the word “I” was only used once, and it was just to share an essential detail of the story. Otherwise, the story was focused on Haley’s competence and not on the boss’s discovery and validation of her. While we may not be purposefully looking to take credit for someone else’s success, this could be a hidden motivation in inserting ourselves in the story. If we’re getting notoriety for helping someone, we’re doing it for the wrong reasons.
When we are supporting others, let’s be careful and care-full with our compliments. The people around us aren’t some sad baby bird who are just waiting for us to swoop in, save them, and help them fly. Typically, we don’t think of them in that way; at least not consciously. But we have to caution ourselves that our leadership habits reflect that we see these people as our peers and colleagues, not our good little students who need a gold star or pat on the head. Let’s support them without being condescending and let’s help them without taking any credit. There’s so much talent out there and enough room for all of us to share and enjoy it.
Psalm 63:1-8 O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. So I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name. My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips when I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy. My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.
It’s interesting seeing lectionary texts this week that talk about refreshment, food, satisfaction, and being filled, considering that it is the third week of Lent and we should be in the middle of our disciplines, practices, fasting, and abstaining (see also Isaiah 55.) However these passages come from a Lenten space, a place of lack and desire. The Psalmist’s soul thirsts and his flesh faints for God and the rich, satisfying provision of God’s steadfast love. The Psalmist is reaching out from a place of scarcity to be filled with nourishment and praise.
Sometimes we go into Lent with ambitious intentions of taking on or giving up something, but we’re not always sure what our end goal will be. How are we hoping to grow? Where do we need healing? While we are in our Lenten season, let us learn from the Psalmist to identify where in our lives we find ourselves thirsting and fainting. Where are we aching, parched, and empty? If we take a moment to assess ourselves spiritually, emotionally, physically, relationally, and mentally we can see where in our lives we can invite God to satisfy those places that lack the care we need.
Philippians 3:17-4:1 Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.
In the second week of lent as I consider where I am in my faith and how my soul is on a healing journey, I read this scripture and something important struck me: there is no place for humiliation in God’s glory. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.
I don’t think we can be followers of Christ without a need and desire to uphold and honor human dignity. When we reduce people down to their housing and employment status, their immigration status, their skin color, how much weight they carry, their physical and mental abilities, their gender or sexuality, and their religion, we have already failed to live up to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. God does not love me more than you. It would be sinful of me to think so. It would put me in opposition to everything that Jesus taught.
All people deserve to be treated as valuable and precious. Because there is no room for humiliation, devaluation, and discrimination in the Kingdom of God. That means I have to work on my heart and what I hold against others. That’s hard to admit, but I have to wake up and remind myself everyday that God loves all the people I don’t like every bit as much as God loves me.
When we forget human dignity, we are turning away from God’s glory. Then we get events like the Christchurch, New Zealand shooting. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. It does not glorify God to hurt or kill or discriminate against or dislike or be suspicious of or give side-eye to Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, or people of any other faith. God loves them and cherishes them; we should hold them and all people in sacred regard for life. We should celebrate our diversity and rejoice in who God has made us to be.
God’s glory leaves no room for humiliation. Human dignity is a completely necessary tenant of our faith.
Deuteronomy 26:1-11 When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us.” When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God, you shall make this response before the LORD your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.” You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.
I wonder what the Hebrews would have thought of Moses autographing the stone tablets of the law. This command in Deuteronomy was to trust and give all worship to God. It wasn’t Moses, Aaron, Miriam, or any other human leader who had liberated the Israelites from the suffocating grasp of Egypt. It was God who saved them from oppression, and it was God who they were commanded to bring their first fruits to. It wasn’t long before the Israelites put their trust into fallible people, looking to them for liberation and leadership, trusting God less and less. This led to invasion and exile. When I see how people defend our leaders who use religion as voting leverage but do not provide first fruits or exhibit fruits of the Spirit I wonder if we’re repeating the mistakes of history because we think we’re immune or because we’re not reading our Bibles.
I slack in reading my Bible too. But we’re in critical times where ignoring the lessons of the past is to our own detriment.
As we enter the season of lent we have an opportunity to take a step back and truly consider where our allegiances and priorities lie, and if they are being held together with integrity or in conflict. We cannot afford to be swayed by cheap tricks like Bible signing, wrapping arms around American flags, and being prayed over by religious leaders. Are our leaders acting with compassion, being driven by equality and justice, guarding human dignity, and uplifting the least of these? Are they giving all that they have and all that they are to the service of others? When they profess faith are they giving of their first fruits?
And then we turn to ourselves. Are we active in our faith, or just once a week pew-sitters? Do we show up on Sundays for the sake of being comforted, or so that God will speak a new word to challenge us and help us grow? Are we people of faith so that our belief will serve our own interests, or so that we might be servants to God’s world?
I will be ruminating on these questions this lenten season, remembering the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob…the God of Eve, Hagar, Deborah, and Miriam. I am transitioning from my job into a time of uncertainty. I am moving. I am leaving a painful, terrible situation. I have a lot of grief and pain weighing me down. My faith has taken a beating. As I figure out where I am going from here, I am considering this scripture and these questions. I’ll be praying about the first fruits in my life and holding my leaders accountable for theirs. I share this in hopes that you will consider these questions too.