A Circle with No Outsider

A Circle with No Outsider

This is the third post of the Understanding Poverty series.

 

Imagine entering a room, a banquet hall. You approach a small group of people to greet, but they scurry away instead. People start to turn their backs on you. Your hesitant smiles meet derisive stares.

 

The message is clear: You are an outsider. You don’t belong. You’re not wanted here.

 

How would you feel? Shame. Small. Something rotten. What is wrong with me?

 

Am I not good enough? Not cool enough, not pretty enough, not handsome enough, not educated enough, not rich enough, not talkative enough, not tall enough, not healthy enough. Or, too cool, too educated, too rich, too talkative, too tall, too fit, too womanly, too manly, too light, or too dark.

 

Now imagine that in the midst of that uncomfortable room, someone comes in and scans the crowd. She makes eye contact with you and her face beams with joy.

 

What relief.

 

Your savior has come. She heads straight to you. You’re drowning, but she’s lifting you up. Someone is actually happy that you’re here. Someone is here who says, You belong.

 

 

Outsiders and Their Saviors

 

I daresay most of us have experienced being an outsider, some more severely than others. We know that strong sense of shame, of being rejected for who you are.

 

How much do we long for that someone who embraces us as we are? Or, how much relief envelops us when that person comes.

 

Outsiders and their saviors is a lens through which I’ve been reading biblical stories lately, Jesus’ stories, in particular. Jesus was not only the Savior of the world—in the take-away-the-sin-of-the-world sense—He was constantly a savior in social situations.

 

Imagine Zaccheus’ wonder, an outsider, cast out by his tribe for working with the enemy and swindling his own people, when Jesus turned his eyes on him. When was the last time someone saw him for who he was? Jesus not only saw him, He let Zaccheus feed and minister to Him. In this meeting, Zaccheus was affirmed and challenged to transform.

 

Imagine being a leper whom Jesus touched, who had probably forgotten what it meant to be seen or have human contact. Jesus’ healing was not only physical—it was emotional. You are accepted. I accept you.

 

Imagine being the woman who touched Jesus’ garment. Or being a child who wanted to come near Jesus. They were outsiders, but they found an ally in Jesus.

 

In fact, more than an ally. They found someone who would eat with them, someone who would touch them and talk to them, someone who would be with them. They found the kinship of God.

 

Expanding Our Circle

 

As a Christian who aspires, however insufficiently, to be in the world as Jesus was, Jesus’ example is challenging. To go where no one else wants to go, to be with people most people avoid, is… well, I don’t want to do it.

 

We like to congregate among likes and we exclude. We like relationships that will give us something. Sometimes we even find our sense of belonging by excluding people.

 

To a kind of social life that only consists of people who affirm us, Jesus’ love toward those shunned by society is simply provoking. While as humans we may concede to some inside-outside relationship, God’s inside circle is expansive beyond our conception. There is no one whom God does not want to rescue.

 

Perhaps it would do us good to remind ourselves of our outsider-ness. Go back to imagining that banquet hall, to being rejected, and to being rescued.

 

Gregory Boyle in Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion writes about the gang members he works with,

 

Homies have been “outside” for so long they forget there is an inside… The toxicity gets so internalized that it obliterates the “me.” You couldn’t possibly have interest in knowing things about “me.”

 

All throughout Scripture and history, the principal suffering of the poor is not that they can’t pay their rent on time or that they are three dollars short of a package of Pampers. As Jesus scholar Marcus Borg points out, the principal suffering of the poor is shame and disgrace. It is a toxic shame—a global sense of failure of the whole self.

 

Exclusion by money is as old as time. What never gets old is this: Jesus was born and lived as a poor person. The first public words Jesus spoke was, “Blessed are the poor, for theirs are the kingdom of God.”

 

Boyle continues,

 

Homies seem to live in the zip code of the eternally disappointing, and need a change of address. To this end, one hopes (against all human inclination) to model not the “one false move” God but the “no matter whatness” of God. You seek to imitate the kind of God you believe in, where disappointment is, well, Greek to Him. You strive to live the black spiritual that says, “God looks beyond our fault and sees our need.”

 

To that diminished sense of self, God says, I am happy to be with you.

 

To Be Known and Loved

 

Boyle tells a story of Mother Teresa when she once told a group of lepers how loved by God they were and a “gift to the rest of us.” An old leper raised his hand and said, “Could you repeat that again? It did me good. So, would you mind…just saying it again?”

 

To be accepted for who we are, fully, isn’t that our greatest need?

 

Tim Keller writes,

 

To be loved but not known is comforting but superficial. To be known and not loved is our greatest fear. But to be fully known and truly loved is, well, a lot like being loved by God. It is what we need more than anything. It liberates us from pretense, humbles us out of our self-righteousness, and fortifies us for any difficulty life can throw at us.

 

God goes beyond than tolerating the outcasts—He delights in them. Now if we could be a force of that kind of love in the world…

 

See related essay: Human Strudel

Photo by Mitch Lensink on Unsplash

 

How to Deal With the Nostalgic Naysayers

How to Deal With the Nostalgic Naysayers

Ever met people who glorify the past? Listen to how they glory in the good old days, saying that nothing now or in the future will ever compare to how it used to be. I call them the nostalgic naysayers. They are bound to the success of the past, blinded to change, and pretty discouraging to be around.

 

This post retells one of my favorite Biblical stories that has lessons on precisely this: how to deal with nostalgic naysayers. It may be an old story, but its lessons are contemporary. It’s about a leader, who headed a big project, faced oppositions, stopped working, and found his strength again. If you would, come along for the story.

 

How the Story Began

 

The name is Zerubbabel. We meet him first in the postexilic—telling the history of the Jewish people after their captivity in Babylon—book of Ezra. The story began when Cyrus, king of Persia, had a spiritual epiphany. God impressed upon Him a desire to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.

 

At this point, the Jews had been in captivity for over seven decades. Jerusalem was plundered by King Nebuchadnezzar, its temple destroyed, and the vessels in the temple were taken to Babylon about seventy years earlier. They lived as captives in Babylon, strangers, displaced people whose home was taken away from them. The Medes and the Persians eventually overtook Babylon, and it was after this change of power that the Jews had the opportunity to return to their home.

 

Cyrus sent hundreds of thousands of the Jews to return to Jerusalem to build the temple, along with resources and the vessels that Nebuchadnezzar had taken. Zerubbabel was the leader of this group. Imagine the rejoicing of this homecoming.

 

The Nostalgic Naysayers

 

The rebuilding of the temple then began in earnest. In Ezra 3, we find that they finished the foundation of the temple, and this was a cause for a great celebration.

 

But amongst the cheer, there were dissenting voices. It says in Ezra 3:12,

 

“But many of the priests and Levites and heads of the fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this temple was laid before their eyes. Yet many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping of the people, for the people shouted with a loud shout, and the sound was heard afar off.”

 

I read this in the 21st century, and it sounds completely contemporary to me. I’m talking about the old men who wept, the nostalgic naysayers.

 

What’s their problem? These men had the honor of seeing the first temple; the one Solomon built many years before. Solomon went all out for this temple, with lots of gold and majestic things. This was the temple that Nebuchadnezzar plundered.

 

They had seen the glory of the past and were imprisoned by it. Past success limiting future dreams much? They wept because they knew that this new temple that was about to be built would never be like the old temple. It would be so inferior, so tragic.

 

The image of the first temple blinded them that they could not even see the possibilities of a better future. I mean, the temple had not been built yet at this point! They had just laid the foundation. But these men had boxed their vision. “It will never be like the good old days.”

 

As a young person, I’ve heard these familiar voices a few times. Often, they come from older, more experienced people. It will never work. Things are just not what they used to be anymore. Sometimes they mean well, trying to protect me from disappointments. Sometimes, it’s just to flaunt their experience. No big deal.

 

But the fallacy in nostalgia lies in the fact that our memories are faulty. The way our brain treats the past is that it will always grow more golden the more we cling to them. In reality, those times might not be as good as it sounds in real time.

 

Our memories are whatever we want them to be. It depends on the narrative we tell ourselves. And the worst part is if that narrative binds us to the past and limits our capacity to imagine possibilities.

 

But you what’s worse? I’ve also said things like this!

 

As a not-super-young-anymore person, I too am complicit in nostalgic naysaying. We’ve tried that before, it didn’t work. Or, yea, I knew that already. Nothing new or special in this. The implication is that I don’t allow the possibility for change, that things that didn’t work in the past may now work, or vice versa, simply because time has changed.

 

Ever discouraged someone from trying something new?

 

The worst part is if you succeeded.

 

Well, in the case of Zerubbabel, the naysayers succeeded, partly. The neighboring regions also rallied against the building of the temple and pulled political stints to halt the process. They succeeded. At the end of Ezra 4, the building ceased. Only the foundation was laid.

 

 

God’s Affirmation

 

But then God intervened. Haggai and Zechariah, two prophets sent to deliver messages from God came to the scene. They got the builders to start working again after a few years of dormancy. What did they say?

 

To Zerubbabel, the leader of this project, God spoke specific encouragements. In Zechariah 4:6-10, God said,

 

“This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel:
‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’
Says the Lord of hosts.
‘Who are you, O great mountain?
Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain!
And he shall bring forth the capstone
With shouts of “Grace, grace to it!”’”

Moreover the word of the Lord came to me, saying:

“The hands of Zerubbabel
Have laid the foundation of this temple;
His hands shall also finish it.
Then you will know
That the Lord of hosts has sent Me to you.
For who has despised the day of small things?
For these seven rejoice to see
The plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel.
They are the eyes of the Lord,
Which scan to and fro throughout the whole earth.”

 

 

God said, Your work, Zerubbabel, is not going to be about might or power, but about the Spirit. Something else will get it done. All the challenges before you will disappear. The path will open. You have laid the foundation; you also will finish the temple.

 

Imagine, while all those naysayers despised this as a small thing, God was rejoicing. His eyes roamed throughout the earth, and He was happy to see that plumb line in Zerubbabel’s hands.

 

How do you stay discouraged with those kinds of affirmations? And for the nostalgic naysayers, how did they weep when the Spirit of God was rejoicing?

 

God was not done with his affirmations. In Haggai 2,

 

In the seventh month, on the twenty-first of the month, the word of the Lord came by Haggai the prophet, saying: “Speak now to Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people, saying: ‘Who is left among you who saw this temple in its former glory? And how do you see it now? In comparison with it, is this not in your eyes as nothing? Yet now be strong, Zerubbabel,’ says the Lord; ‘and be strong, Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; and be strong, all you people of the land,’ says the Lord, ‘and work; for I am with you,’ says the Lord of hosts. ‘According to the word that I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt, so My Spirit remains among you; do not fear!’

 

Here, a direct rebuke was given to the nostalgic naysayers. The rebuke was that they were ignored. God only spoke to His workers, to be strong, assuring that He will be with them.

 

And then He gave them a promise.

 

“For thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘Once more (it is a little while) I will shake heaven and earth, the sea and dry land; and I will shake all nations, and they shall come to the Desire of All Nations, and I will fill this temple with glory,’ says the Lord of hosts. ‘The silver is Mine, and the gold is Mine,’ says the Lord of hosts. ‘The glory of this latter temple shall be greater than the former,’ says the Lord of hosts. ‘And in this place I will give peace,’ says the Lord of hosts.”

 

In a while, this temple that looked inferior to the first would be filled in glory. And its glory would far surpass the first temple’s! The Desire of All Nations, a prophetic reference to Jesus, would fill the temple. It would be a place of peace.

 

While some people looked back to the glory of the past, God was planning a greater glory in the future.

 

To a discouraged leader, what affirmations these words brought. So Zerubbabel, Joshua, and the rest of the people built and finished the temple, in spite of oppositions and political barriers. God moved those barriers away. And their work was completed.

 

The Postlude

 

In Matthew 1, we see Zerubbabel’s name again. Apparently, 11 generations after, he was to be part of Jesus’ lineage. The Desire of All Nations had come, and He filled the temple that Zerubbabel built with glory.

 

One day, Zerubbabel will rejoice to see the fulfillment of God’s promise, the full affirmations of God for his work.

 

So, What to do with Nostalgic Naysayers

 

Ignore them.

 

The important thing is to be sure of our calling, to be determined to our purpose.

 

There will always be naysayers, especially when you try new things. But don’t let them limit your capacity to dream.

 

Most of all, please, don’t be one of them.

 

Individuality and Creativity: A Christian Perspective

Individuality and Creativity: A Christian Perspective

This is the second post in an article series on individuality. Read the first here. This post is for those curious about what individuality means in the Judeo-Christian perspective, even if you don’t subscribe to it.

 

“That’s so him.” “Totally something she’d do!” “Who would’ve thought of that?!” These acknowledgements of individuality—what makes you, you—are not foreign to us. The existence of individuality in the human experience is indisputable.

 

Where does our individuality come from?

 

Well, this is a worldview question, with answers as numerous as the beliefs that exist on Earth. This post is specifically about the Judeo-Christian perspective and its regard of mankind and individuality. Though you may not subscribe to it, I’m inviting you to empathize and gain an understanding of how those that do see individuality from their point of view.

 

Mankind as An Image of the Divine

 

In the Judeo-Christian worldview, a person’s individuality is anchored to the very subject the whole religious system is about: God. The subject of individuality is front and center in the grand opening of its sacred text.

 

Creation, the beginning of the world, opens the Hebrew Bible in the first chapter of Genesis. It’s a much-debated chapter, but let’s set debates aside for a moment and consider the text through the lens of creativity, to see the narrative in the light of a creative process.

 

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” it begins. The chapter narrates the creation of the world in six days, which builds up to the creation of mankind in the sixth. The text says,

 

Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”

 

Mankind is patterned according to God’s image, which is intriguing, because God prohibits the making of images, explicitly stated in the Ten Commandments. Other biblical stories show that mankind is in danger of carving a rock, assembling wood, or creating buildings, even if they were initially made for God, and worshipping these things instead of God. The biblical prophets write against this over and over again. There was to be no idol worshipped in place of Him, because no one thing can adequately represent the fullness of His character and glory. Nothing is big enough to fully represent who He is. But, in mankind there is an exception.

 

In the collection of essays Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, rabbi Abraham J. Heschel writes,

 

“And yet there is something in the world that the Bible does regard as a symbol of God. It is not a temple or a tree, it is not a statue or a star. The one symbol of God is man, every man. God Himself created man in His image.”

 

A person, a human being, is viewed with very high regard, because he is an image of the divine.

 

“Human life is holy, holier even than the Scrolls of the Torah. Its holiness is not man’s achievement; it is a gift of God rather than something attained through merit. Man must therefore be treated with the honor due to a likeness representing the King of Kings.“

 

This image of the divine is not limited to one person, group, or nation. It is present in every single person.

 

“…not one man or one particular nation but all men and all nations are endowed with the likeness of God… the divine likeness is something all men share.”

 

This foundation is also the Judeo-Christian basis of the equality of all men, the anchor of justice and how we ought to treat one another.

 

“This is a conception of far-reaching importance to biblical piety. What it implies can hardly be summarized. Reverence for God is shown in our reverence for man. The fear you must feel of offending or hurting a human being must be as ultimate as your fear of God. An act of violence is an act of desecration. To be arrogant toward man is to be blasphemous toward God.”

 

Power to Think and to Do

 

The concept mankind being an image of the divine is rich with meaning. One aspect of this is the capability to create, which is demonstrated by the Creator Himself. It is the capability to invent, to see beyond what is into what could be, and to work towards that destination one step at a time.

 

In the book Education, Ellen White writes:

 

“Every human being, created in the image of God, is endowed with a power akin to that of the Creator—individuality, power to think and to do.”

 

The power to think and transform that thought into reality is the most baffling and fascinating trait of humanity. It mirrors the divine pattern as told in the Creation narrative.

 

Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. So the evening and the morning were the first day.”

 

First there’s a thought, then words. The words become reality. And God sees what happens and calls it good. Finally, He names what He has just made. What is this if not the core of a creative process?

 

White continues,

 

“The men in whom this power is developed are the men who bear responsibilities, who are leaders in enterprise, and who influence character. It is the work of true education to develop this power, to train the youth to be thinkers, and not mere reflectors of other men’s thought. Instead of confining their study to that which men have said or written, let students be directed to the sources of truth, to the vast fields opened for research in nature and revelation. Let them contemplate the great facts of duty and destiny, and the mind will expand and strengthen. Instead of educated weaklings, institutions of learning may send forth men strong to think and to act, men who are masters and not slaves of circumstances, men who possess breadth of mind, clearness of thought, and the courage of their convictions.”

 

Those we admire, leaders of the world, makers and changers of society, display this power of individuality—to think and to act. They are thinkers for themselves, not reflectors of other people’s thoughts. They are masters of their circumstances.

 

creativity

 

Individuality and Creativity

 

In the last post, I emphasized that individuality is an asset in creative processes, in works that have no set to-do instructions, in the making of something new (as opposed to imitating an existing creation). Where there’s no other guide, individuality, your power to think and to do, is your only resource. Indeed, it is in these types of original work that individuality shines forth the most.

 

Consider this. When God chose to write His opening act, His first introduction to the world, His grand entrance, His chance for a first impression in the first chapter of the Bible, He chose a creative story, a narrative of Him engaging in creative work.

 

In that first chapter, God is the sole agent, the ultimate actor, and the decision maker. He stares at His blank canvas, a void and shapeless world, and He begins that journey of creating something new.

 

I wonder if this creative process is also a discovery, something like the times when we engage in creative endeavors and surprise ourselves at what comes out. Maybe there’s an elevated, divine version of this, because at the end of each creation day, God sees what He has done, pausing for a moment of reflection, evaluation, consideration, and says that it is good. It is almost as if He doesn’t completely know if it would turn out good, at least not as predictable as mass printing labels from a manufacturing process. The artist sees and is satisfied with what He has carved that day.

 

It is easy to take stories like these for granted, to miss the essence and mystery of the creative process. We take it for granted because when we read stories of how inventors create, we already see the results. Thus we think it’s inevitable, a classic case of hindsight bias. Of course the plane should look that way, it’s obvious! Whereas if we put ourselves in the shoes of the Wright brothers, going forward in time, experimenting and trying out designs, the final product could have taken a different shape amidst the thousands of decisions they had to make.

 

We already know how important the sun is when we read the fourth day of creation. The trees are already outside our windows when we read about the third day, so it does not occur to us that trees did not really have to work that way. Things didn’t have to work the way they do now, because the creator started with a blank canvas. Someone decided where to put the stars, the waters, the sky, and the eyes. They were design decisions, made by an individual with thoughts and intent, with power to accomplish them.

 

Most importantly, there was freedom. God had full freedom to choose how He would shape the world among numerous options. He could have chosen a million other combinations, just like a writer could start his book a thousand different ways, a painter beginning with a thousand different strokes. The shape that we see at the end is the culmination of a nonlinear process, the artist’s individuality, mind and heart at work, which is all hidden in that final painting.

 

It is no small matter that God’s grand entrance—a story of His creativity—is also humanity’s most baffling trait. Stories of human creativity and inventions inspire us. The creators of the world, the change-makers, are those who know how to mine their individuality.

 

Experiencing Creation

 

If mankind is made in God’s image, and the first thing He wants us to know about Himself is His creativity, then it must mean that He wants us to employ our individuality and creativity to its fullest measure. Could it be that in engaging in a creative process, we are mirroring divinity? Anyone who has engaged in creating something must know the magical wonder stored within the process, from inspiration to fruition. Could it be that Genesis 1 is an invitation for us to write our own creation stories?

 

Want more? See also Individuality: What Makes You, You, how genius work happens, and how to use individuality as the engine of learning.