Wednesday, April 17, 2013

other

Table of food: Christmas dinner with my family
I try to live by the motto that life is not about issues, but about relationships.  As a result of this, I don't engage much with hot topics or comment much on world events or what's on the news.  Frankly, I usually have very little to add to the conversation, other than to ask God for grace, help, healing, and wholeness.  Coming down on one side or the other of an issue is never that helpful, I find.  However, a few things I have read lately about how some Christian groups are condemning, excluding, and judging certain people have pained me deeply.  As a result, I have begun to do some thinking about how we treat others.  And by "others" I mean those whom we disagree with, those whom we don't understand, those whom we don't like, those whom we think are a blight on society, etc. You know who I'm talking about. 

Since I profess to follow God, I believe that I should learn how to treat others by looking at how God treats others.  Let me begin with a brief look at holiness (thanks to James Patrick Holding and Jo Bailey Wells for the following points which I have adapted).
1) Holiness means uniqueness.  No one and nothing else is like God.  Being made in God's image means that we, as humans, carry some of this uniqueness.  And that which is unique requires unique accommodation: it is to be treated with special care and attention.  This explains some of the rigorous directives given regarding the worship of God and the care of the temple items.
2) Holiness means belonging to God.  Someone or something is holy because of their association with a holy God.
3) Holiness means living with God. Not only is holiness about being associated with God, it is about being in the presence of God.  In other words, the closer the association, the more intimate the connection, the more holiness comes into play.  This means that holiness is linked to the characteristics of God, two of which are purity (100% wholeness, no mixed ingredients) and light (no darkness).
4) Holiness radiates outward.  While holiness is, in a sense, a boundary that separates God from everything else, holiness is not closed off.  Holiness, like light, glows and radiates outward.

To this holy God, then, everything and everyone is other.  However, when we look at Genesis 1-2, we see a God who is invitational.  Though God is complete and self-sufficient, having need of nothing or no one, he invites the "other" into existence.  This is the creation story.  God also generously invites the "other" into companionship (Genesis 2).  This companionship involves freedom of choice, so we see God inviting the "other" to exercise their will.  When the different wills clash, a rift develops in the relationship (Genesis 3).  God then invites the "other" to be restored and makes a way to repair the relationship.  What follows in the rest of the books of the Bible is the continuing story of this restoration with all its ups and downs.  In Genesis 12, God invites the "other" into a covenant, a mutual relationship which has the following phrase echoing throughout the history of the Israelites: "I will be your God and you will be my people" (Exodus 6). 

This covenant includes three elements: invitation, promises, and boundaries.  God invites the "other" into relationship.  This relationship carries with it mutual promises and defines the places of meeting.  For example, if I invite Bob over for dinner tonight at 7 pm and he accepts, I am basically making a promise to have food prepared and he is promising to be present.  Being in a mutual agreement also means that other things which are in conflict with this agreement are excluded.  Bob can't be somewhere else eating at someone else's table at 7 pm tonight because that would be in conflict with our agreement.  The boundaries of our agreement also mean that when Bob is eating at my table, at my invitation, he agrees to abide by the basic etiquette of his host.  He does not throw food, he does not stab any of the other guests with his butter knife, nor does pick up someone else's chair and toss it out the window.  It's my table and not "anything goes" at my table.

The last point I want to add here is something I read in a blog by Richard Beck.  He talks about recovering our identity as Gentiles.  What this means is that we must never forget that we are not "by nature" the children of God.  We have been chosen and adopted.  We are the branches that have been grafted onto the tree.  We, who were outsiders, have been given the great gift of being invited into relationship with God.  We sometimes forget that our inclusion at the table of God was shocking and offensive at the time of Jesus.  Many of the ones already at the table (the Jews) were not impressed with this development, and quite a few of the letters written in the New Testament address this issue of who is "in" and who is not. 

So how does all of this relate to how we treat others?  First, all of creation has been invited to the table of God.  God, in his generosity, excludes no one from the invitation.  However, not everyone responds to the invitation and pulls up a chair (enters into a mutual agreement to be God's and make God their own).  Those who have responded to the invitation must not forget that this is not their table; they have not issued the invitation so they have no authority to exclude someone or demand behaviour tailored to their own personal preference.  What happens around the table (boundaries or guidelines) is determined by the host.  As at any feast, we are not to throw the food on the floor and stomp on it (not treat our gifts and resources with carelessness or disdain).  We are not to take up our butter knives and stab those sitting beside us (not harm fellow human beings).  And we are not to heave someone else's chair out the window (not deny someone else a seat at the table).  We are all outsiders.  We are all invited.  Everyone is welcome, but not anything goes. 

Let me always remember that I am the "other" and any connection I have with God is a gift, a generous, undeserved gift.  If God is invitational, I must be invitational.  What does that look like in my life?

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