stopping for directions: the bigger picture

Trying something a little different this morning.
It’s such a familiar text.
So let’s just circle it a few times
and see what we see.
If in one circling, you get intrigued,
you’re invited to keep circling that idea.

The year I taught religion at First Baptist Church school,
in Charleston, South Carolina
I had an apartment east of the Ashley (the Ashley river),
but I lived as much with Wes and Holly
and their little girl Abby as I did at that apartment.
Wes was the pastoral counselor on staff at First.
Holly was my best friend.
And Abby was the first little girl I was ever around on a consistent basis—
the first whom I baby sat, the first whose diapers I changed.
I took her to a faculty meeting
(where she did what we all wanted to do and fell asleep),
took her to a basketball game,
and felt my heart do flips when I saw her waiting for me on her front porch
arms outstretched for a hug.
I told her last year when I saw her in Texas after the Alliance convocation
she was the reason I was so happy to have little girls.

Then, after I moved to Waco, they moved to Austin,
and I put a lot of miles on the car driving down to Austin.
Then they moved to Waco.
So I’m actually kind of waiting for them to move here now!

Holly’s a wonderful cook.
One of my finer accomplishments at Seventh & James
was securing her services for Wednesday night meals for a time.
She did the rehearsal dinner for our wedding.
And while I have lots of favorite Holly recipes,
she makes the most wonderful desserts.
For a wedding present, I got most of her recipes
including these desserts:
buttermilk pie, scotcheroos, aunt melva’s chocolate sheet cake,
and everything cookies.
Now everything cookies contain oatmeal and coconut,
and chocolate chips, rice krispies,
and, of course, butter, oil, salt, sugar, flour,
and baking powder.

And you could, don’t you think? make an argument
that some ingredients don’t get as much respect as others.
Think chocolate chips vs. baking powder.
Yet without that baking powder, no cookies.
And salt is unexpectedly important.
But everyone wants to be the chocolate chip!

But Paul didn’t know Holly or her everything cookies.
And here’s the more important thing:
you might actually take one wonderful bite of cookie,
and your first question might be, “What’s in this?”

When it comes to the body though,
you don’t look at anyone, I don’t—
don’t get to know someone
and wonder what’s in them—what they’re made of.
Because the body,
unlike the cookie,
is understood as a whole
not the sum of its parts.

So I love the everything cookies—
love to eat them and love the idea of the church as a cookie,
with each ingredient necessary—even the baking powder.
But even as it offers perspective on Paul’s metaphor,
I also acknowledge the limitations of cookies
as metaphor like unto Paul’s metaphor
because Paul’s insight—Paul’s profound insight
is about a whole, not the parts—
even though we acknowledge that as the parts.

Let’s circle around again.
Have you noticed?
I don’t know about y’all,
but during these winter months, my hands get so dry.
And with regard to skin care during the winter,
if you wait until your skin is already dry, chapped and cracked,
well, that’s one thing,
but if you start the regular moisturizing and lotioning
with the advent of cold weather,
that’s another.
Preemptive or proactive treatment is better than reactive.
And that’s important.

And important far beyond our personal seasonal skin care.
And I invite you to take some time to reflect
on the possibilities inherent to a more proactive approach—
to what? To whatever you want to think about.

You can start with skin care and move on to health in general
(our good health is contingent upon a proactive approach
that balances exercise and diet and appropriate care of self),
to our health care system that tends to be so very reactive
(though there is movement toward a more preemptive approach
focused on keeping people healthy
instead of just treating them when sick)—
as our dentist told us, just floss the teeth you want to keep!

And health care can take us to the body politic
where our approach—the tactic we’ve allowed politicians to adopt—
has been to deal with the mess when it gets too big to ignore.
And look at the messes that keeps us in.

If one part suffers, all suffer.
You sprain your ankle and your whole life changes.
You’re amazed at how important that ankle is.
You cut your finger making a salad
and marvel in dismay at what all is affected.
You deal with a slight chemical imbalance
that creates emotional havoc.

Until it doesn’t work, you don’t notice it.
Then when it doesn’t, it’s all you notice.
And then if it works again,
you go right back to taking it for granted again.

We need a more proactive, preemptive, consistent strategy
across the board
that is less about reacting to what has gone wrong,
as anticipating what might
and not letting it get to that point.

I know.
Easier said than done.
Doesn’t mean we don’t try.
And I’ve started carrying lip balm and a lotion
with me for not just daily, but regular application.

If past history is any indication
this will last for about a week,
then I’ll stop,
until my hands become painful.

Now, just to be clear, does Paul say all this? No.
It’s important implication of the metaphor though.

And the metaphor of the body was commonly used
back in the day when Paul was writing.
It “was commonly used in Stoicism to describe the cosmos,”
(Robert Scott Nash, 1 Corinthians
in Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary
[Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2009] 361),
but it was also typically used to describe a political reality,
and, within that political reality,
to encourage the weaker parts, the less respected parts
to know their place—
to keep their place
(Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians
in Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for
Teaching and Preaching
[Louisville: John Knox, 1997] 213).

But Paul was writing the christians in Corinth—
some of whom we know … how should I put this …
thought much of themselves!
And so, of course, there were those
who had to deal with the consequences of those
who thought much of themselves.

And Paul’s use of the body imagery
is not so much about knowing and keeping your place—
about being content with your place,
but with the idea of a respected interdependence—
an appreciation of all parts—
and, particularly (this the God perspective),
the less honored, less respected, weaker, inferior parts.

Last year, I finished for July 4
something I had started three years before:
a rewrite. So, not in congress, July 4, 1776,
but in conversation, July 4, 2012,
and not the unanimous declaration of
the thirteen united States of America,
but the imagined unanimous declaration of all creation,
and not a declaration of independence,
but one of interdependence.
I want to read a chunk of that:

When in the course of events it becomes necessary
to address the tensions that rise from the ties that bind
the parts within a whole—
the tensions that rise when some individual parts assume
certain prerogatives or privileges
amidst the separate and equal stations
to which the order of creation and the nature of God call them
(the same God who arranged the whole,
giving the greater honor to the inferior parts),
a decent respect to and for the opinions of every aspect of creation
requires that the parts should both name and hear named
these various tensions which might impel them to tear asunder the whole.

We hold these truths to be self-evident,
that all creation was created equally blessed,
that it is endowed by the Creator in all its glorious particulars
with certain unalienable rights,
that among these are the dignity of a non-utilitarian value,
the freedom to be and to celebrate being a minority within the whole,
and the pursuit of God’s vision of creation as an integrated whole
(if one suffers all suffer, if one is honored, all rejoice)
for the flourishing of abundant life for all. —

That to secure these rights, stewardship of creation
was granted humanity, deriving its just powers
from both the initial commission of God
and the subsequent and consequent well-being of the whole, —

That whenever any form of stewardship becomes destructive
of the ends that justify it, it is the responsibility of people
to repent, to remember—to confront what is and should not be,
and to institute new priorities,
laying their foundation on such principles
and organizing their powers in such form,
as to them shall seem most likely to effect a healthy balance
ensuring the possibility of a long-term, viable hope for all.

We, therefore, representatives of creation,
assembled in conversation,
appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions,
do, in the name, and by authority of creation,
solemnly publish and declare,
that creation is, and of right ought to be
a free and interdependent reality
(independence being, now,
far too small, selfish, arrogant, ungodly an aspiration
not to mention patently unrealistic!) ….

There’s a bigger picture we tend not to see.
Smaller viewpoints dominate perspective.
That’s what perspective means,
but we seem to forget that
and equate perspective with truth—
whether that’s a talking head on TV,
in politics or the pulpit.
And even the idea of a bigger picture
begins to get fuzzy.

Paul invites us to start
by considering our bodies.
Paul goes on to use the body
as a way of thinking explicitly about church community.
But we don’t stop there either.
We honor the background of Paul’s metaphor
applied as it was in his time to politics.
And we seek the insight that
a more proactive interdependence
is vital to our future and our future health—
one that depends on individuals (parts)
being able to prioritize a larger whole.

It was one of the wide receivers who said it.
Torrey Smith? Anquan Boldin?
“It’s the offensive line,” he said,
“giving us time to run our routes—
giving Joe Flacco time to find us,
to get himself set up and throw.
If they don’t do their job,
nothing else matters. We can’t do ours.”
A good team recognizes that some get more glory,
but are dependent on those that don’t.
So do good coaches, owners, and fans.

That’s not how the players get paid though, is it?
Or interviewed. Or appreciated.

And so we start with our bodies
to affirm we don’t stop there.
And nor do we stop with the local community of faith.
But go on to consider the body as political reality
and then as cosmological reality.

And we try and live more healthy lives as individuals,
as members of a supportive, encouraging community of faith,
as citizens of a country
and as God’s children seeking the redemption of all creation.

And maybe we can also name the divisiveness in community
on a team and in society,
the focus on individual perspective at the expense of the whole
and the subsequent loss of a bigger picture
of relational interdependence,
maybe we can name that for the cancer it is.

Circling again.
To make a big decision,
we know to do the research,
to weigh and weight the relevant information,
to talk to the experts—
those who know better and more than we,
to draw up the plans and figure the costs.

Hmmm. The costs to whom?
There’s the rub.
Because we tend to focus on our personal costs,
and we tend to focus on financial costs.
There’s that matter of perspective again.

Some native american traditions advocated,
before making a significant decision,
consulting the past seven generations.
Okay. So a generation’s from the time someone’s born
until they have children, right? The next generation.
So, while that varies, I’m figuring, on average, 20 years.
So our great, great, great, great, great grandparents,
seven generations ago, 140 years ago—
that’s back in 1873.
But this native american tradition involved
consulting the seven generations to come as well:
our children’s great, great, great, great grandchildren,
doing the math, that’s in the year 2153.
So what wisdom is there in the past 140 years
and what consequences for the next 140 years?
And I’m weighing my decision against 280 years.

Now would we get anything done?
Not as much, probably. Not as quickly.
But maybe we would be wiser in the doing.

Of course, as those who seek to follow God, we consult with God.
Call it prayer, meditation, Bible study, worship.
It’s not that we necessarily think God has all the answers—
or, whether having all the answers or not,
is going to impart them to us directively.
It is that we value thinking about decisions in the face of God—
in light of God.
And maybe we might, too, be wiser in the doing.

All this begins to come together,
in some sense of the idea of maturing
as embracing, as a part, the whole.

When in committed relationship,
you intentionally and proactively give up
certain individual perspectives and freedoms, right?
When you have children, planned for and anticipated children,
you intentionally and proactively give up certain perspectives and freedoms.
And while you might at times remember some of those freedoms
even longingly,
your commitment is, on the whole, joyful and forward looking.

So if we want healthy bodies—
and we want healthy communities—
and we want a healthy country—
and we want a healthy creation,
the perspective we need
is not one our culture promotes.

But one that Paul does.

And having circled long enough,
hopefully we’ve seen enough signs
to try and come in for a landing.

Having established the metaphor of the body,
the value of a bigger picture
of respectful interdependence,
Paul then associates the church with the body of Christ
and different body parts with different gifts.

Now we talk about gifted individuals,
and the emphasis tends to fall on the individual.
Paul talks about gifts
clearly with the intent that the focus be on the giver
and the intent of the giver—
who gives gifts not for personal benefit,
but for the work of the whole—
not even for the benefit of the whole—
for the work of the whole.
We have a job to do.

But then our text closes with Paul exhorting
people to strive for the greater gifts.
Have you ever just tripped over that and fallen flat on your face?
What’s up with that?
We’ve just been being told there are no greater and lesser gifts—
just different—
all important,
and the lesser ones are the ones that are most to be respected.
Now, strive for the greater ones.

Unless the greater gifts
are not particular gifts,
but attitudes toward giftedness?
Perspectives of the part on the whole?
An appreciation of and a commitment to the whole
of which we’re a part?
But not an attitude, an appreciation, a commitment
we can claim,
but one for which we have to pray.

So we pray, less for things to be different,
as for us to be different within things.
For us to know more fully how to contribute more fully—
to respect completely
and to work toward growth and health
of the whole—
all the while cultivating some image of an ever bigger whole.

It gets harder and harder, doesn’t it?
We start with our bodies. We start with ourselves.
And we can think pretty clearly, what’s best for me?
How do I take the best care of myself?
But then Paul pushes it out a little bit and
Christ’s body becomes the church.
How do I do what’s best for this community?
How do I choose to do what’s best for this way of being together?
And then it gets pushed even further:
Christ’s body as the children of God,
called to redeem creation.
How do I …?
What do I do for the benefit of God’s creation?

We know in part.
So much of what we do as church is answer to that question.
The challenge becomes—how do we do it better?
And how do we extend it beyond this community?
Because it’s easy for me in this kind of healthy, supportive
encouraging community. We make it work.
Now how do we this take beyond?
How do we tell people at work? How do we tell our representatives?
How do we tell our leaders?
We have a bigger picture than you do.
And it’s about time you see it.

May it be so.


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