We Are Vessels

Reposting this from the fantastic Rethink Bishop blog from last week. Enjoy!
We are past due on rethinking the way our churches and related organizations do “mission” or “outreach.” I put these terms in quotations because it seems we have relegated these ideas to a marginalized role, a program, things we do after we’ve gotten everything else paid for and organized. We put together committees who organize one-time service days, bake sales to raise money for the nonprofit down the road, cause campaigns for alleviating diseases in developing parts of the world.
Without a doubt, most people participate in all of these things with good intentions, not selfish ones. We see poverty, hunger, hopelessness. We hear God’s call to react to things, so we react, sometimes with more energy than we thought we were capable of. Our money follows. It feels so good.
Yet more and more of our Christian thinkers these days are questioning whether this is enough (check out this book and this one for starters, then maybe this series of blog posts). The way you think about the mission you’re on really matters, especially if we mean it when we pray for the Kingdom to come.
The well-known passage in Micah calls us to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. There are a million different ways we could define these terms, particularly “justice,” a word that has almost as much of a possibly negative connotation when uttered by certain speakers as “liberal” or “conservative.” So what did the author of Micah intend, removed from our current American political landscape?
The concept of justice had a rich, dynamic definition for the people of Israel. “Hesed” was justice that was God’s own particular justice, doled out particularly to the poor. More than this, though, it was a justice that Israel owed to her neighbors because Yahweh had pulled her out of Egypt and into her true calling. No longer oppressed as slaves, God now expected Israel to bring this “hesed” to the rest of the world, not just because they owed God something, but because they loved God so much.
It is through this OT prophet that I connect so deeply to the two most basic commands of Christ, loving God and loving our neighbor. For an ancient Jew, these concepts are one and the same move, flowing from one love to the next love. We love others because we love God, because he first loved us. We cannot help but be bursting so fully at the seams with the deep knowledge of our true self, freed from our former bonds, that we simply must pass on that freely given justice to others. Over and over again, however, God adds that we must start with those who are most empty and need to be filled first: the poor, the orphan, the widow.
If we are not full enough with God’s love that we simply must provide it to others, then we must empty ourselves further.
My wife and I wrote our own wedding vows. We both make art in one way or another, so we took our time with crafting our words and images. Still to this day, I meditate on one particular image we decided upon: being more and more empty so that one can be filled more fully by the other. Though we were discussing this emptying and filling in terms of the covenant of marriage, the same metaphor could apply to loving God and loving neighbor.
I find myself praying “God make me nothing” until I find myself utterly and completely free of self, an emotion dangerously close to despair, sadness, brokenness. At that precipice, I begin to pray “God make me something.” And God fills me back up, but not with what was there before, not with me.
If we are serving others because we believe that we are at the originating point of the saving that’s going on, we’re doing it wrong. If we are serving others because we believe that if we bring Jesus to them in just the right way, they will be “saved,” we are doing it for our own purposes, not God’s.
And if we are truly vessels, then we see ourselves as multidirectional portals, through which the stranger, the Other, might just show us the undeserved “hesed” of Yahweh. The Other might point back through us, back to our God. We were looking for the poor in the wrong place. They are we.


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