Tuesday, August 12, 2014

He arrived in our lives as an alien....

Humankind lost a beautiful soul when Robin Williams died - he was a man who experienced great pain and yet everyone he touched experienced an irresistible urge to lift the corners of their mouths and utter sounds of joy. 

This morning I read a statement by President Obama about Williams' passing, and there was one line that I found to be so profound and meaningful that I teared up as I read it:

"He arrived in our lives as an alien – but he ended up touching every element of the human spirit."

Christianity holds that Jesus incarnates the presence of God on earth - that when the people of Jesus' time were with him, they were in some sense experiencing "God with us".  Exactly how that works out is interpreted in various ways that I do not want to get into in this particular post - the point is that the essence of Christian belief is that Jesus' birth is meant to be seen in a very similar way to the first part of the President's statement there: "he arrived in our lives as an alien."

But the second part of that statement is very important as well - all throughout Jesus' ministry, the title "son of man" is used.  The origination of this title comes from a vivid prophetic vision portrayed in Daniel 7.  In this vision, four beasts come up out of the sea - each more gruesome looking than the last.  It is widely held by scholarship that these beasts are each a symbolic portrayal of the various empires that rose up around the nation of Israel throughout their history - the Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman empires.  And the reason for portraying them as distorted and horrific beasts is to show the dehumanizing effects of the structures we create that enable one group of people to dominate another.  But the vision goes on to mention the coming of another figure - one who looked like a son of man.  This is a sharp contrast from the beasts - it's not just a human figure, but a vulnerable child.  And Daniel is saying that the way to escape the dehumanizing effects of the Domination System is to make yourself vulnerable - and Christianity holds that Jesus is the perfect example of one who lived this way, and this was "fully human" in a way that perhaps no other human being has experienced.

"He arrived in our lives as an alien – but he ended up touching every element of the human spirit."

The tragic mistake most Christians seem to make is that they worship Jesus himself in such a way that they miss the whole point of his ministry.  Jesus told a parable once - a story that portrays truth symbolically.  This story is commonly referred to as the parable of the sheep and the goats.  In this story, "the son of man" judges the nations and divides them like a shepherd would separate the goats from his herd of sheep - you see, a shepherd would take his sheep out to graze and often goats which did not belong to him would get mixed into his herd, so he would separate them when he returned.  So Jesus is symbolically telling his audience what separates those who belong in the "fully human" category from those who do not.  And the one factor that determines whether or not a person is "fully human" is how they treat those who are different from them.  The "son of man" in Jesus' story says to the sheep that whenever they showed kindness to "the least of these My brethren", they did it to him.  But whenever the goats neglected to give food or drink to the hungry and thirsty, or neglected to help a stranger in need, or neglected to visit someone who was sick or imprisoned, they missed a chance to experience the presence of the divine and thus they did not experience the fullness of humanity.

All too often Christians have distorted Jesus' message into another way to separate one class of humanity from another, and have pretended that one human is more righteous and deserving of love based on what things they assert to be true.  But Jesus seemed to care a lot more about how you treated your fellow man than what you believed.

He told another story we commonly call "The Good Samaritan" - and the scandal of this story was that a foreigner who was part of another religion was portrayed as the good guy, while the people from the audience's own land and religion were portrayed as the calloused and heartless ones.  It's not about beliefs or customs, Jesus was saying - it's about how you treat each other.

The Jewish law in Deuteronomy 10:19 and Leviticus 19:34 command the Israelites to show kindness to "the stranger" and "the alien" and treat them as part of their community - pointing out that the Israelites were once in the same boat when they were aliens in the land of Egypt.  But over time, it seems that this message was obstructed by a faction of Jews who insisted that other rituals and purity customs were more important than showing kindness to strangers.  

But Jesus came along and made love - especially love shown to outcasts - the centerpiece of his message.  Jesus showed us that welcoming those who are different is how we experience the fullness of humanity.

"He arrived in our lives as an alien – but he ended up touching every element of the human spirit."

I believe that a fundamental piece of what it means to be alive - to be fully human - is to grow.  And you cannot grow if you've closed yourself off to new experiences.  If you have shut yourself off into a community where everyone is exactly like you, I believe that in a certain sense you are already dead.

But that does not mean there is no hope - because sometimes an alien comes into your community and touches your spirit, showing you once more what it means to be alive.  

We need people who are different to show us what it truly means to be alive, because we cannot grow without seeing the world through the eyes of the alien.

Nanu, nanu, Mr. Williams - you showed us strange perspectives, and thus you called us to grow and be human.

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