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Reading Someone Else’s Mail 2: Defining Ourselves

January 27, 2014

“Reading Someone Else’s Mail 2: Defining Ourselves” 1 Corinthians 1:10-31 © 1.26.14 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Conflict is a constant, familiar, inevitable, and even necessary part of our lives. We witness it every day as politicians fight with each other over whatever the hot button issue of the moment might be or as scenes of one of the many wars around the world appear on our TVs. It’s presented to us as entertainment as cheap, trashy people settle their differences on a daytime talk show or rich, attractive, but still trashy young adults seek revenge or lie to and compete with each other on an evening drama. We may even encounter conflict as we take daily medications, making sure that one pill doesn’t interfere with another or cause adverse side effects when the two are taken together.

Conflict is part and parcel of the very earth we live on. Giant plates scraping and moving against each other over eons formed the continents we have today. Storms are created when one front encounters another. Animal species compete for territory, food, and water. And while we may not welcome conflict, we also know that it’s necessary quite often for growth. It’s the engine that drives change. The teen arguing with his or her parents is becoming his or her own person, as is the two year-old screaming “no” over and over. Competition for markets spurs innovation and leads to new products and better techniques and technology. People longing for a voice and a place march and sue and testify and write and organize, all the while resisted mightily by those with everything to gain from keeping things as they are. Where would we be today if scientists and statesmen, preachers and teachers, artists and entrepreneurs had shied away from confrontation and conflict and just left well enough alone?

Conflict, of course, can be and is destructive, and that’s why reasonable people regard it and pursue it as a last resort, something to be endured in hopes of a positive outcome, a powerful force to be respected and managed as best we can. When atmospheric conflicts create storms, we suffer. When arguments rage and accusations fly in families or nations, they are torn apart, sometimes never to be healed again. When we have internal conflicts, we may become mentally ill or so debilitated as to be unable to function.

I’ve seen a good bit of conflict over my 36 years of ministry, and I’ve noticed or learned something about it. Whatever someone says it’s about on the surface, whatever the issues and reasons are claimed to be for a war, a lawsuit, a legislative battle, if you look deep enough, it’s quite often really about value and definition. And it starts with one or two people and their feelings and needs.

Here’s what I mean. Someone feels disrespected by someone else. Maybe not listened to, counted as worthy of attention, used, ignored, made fun of, insecure, perhaps barely regarded as human, thoroughly devalued. And maybe the bully, the oppressor, the disgruntled neighbor, the spouse, the church member, whoever, feels the same way, though he or she has tremendous power and influence. Perception may or may not match the facts. And the conflict widens as both summon allies and friends to help them in the struggle to be valued, to have dignity, to be listened to and well-regarded.

For example, a politician feels dismissed personally by a mayor or some other leader and arranges payback to embarrass and discredit the opponent, but the effect is to create chaos on a wider scale. Or feuding spouses or heirs enlist their respective families and attorneys to be on their side and fight by proxy instead of speaking to each other, so the storm grows larger. Or perhaps a church member is personally offended by something the new minister said or did, like politely refusing a suggestion or help, and begins a campaign to discredit him in the congregation and get rid of him for not being suitable. It’s not business; it’s personal.

I suspect every one of us has fallen into those traps. We have felt defined by others in negative ways and have let ourselves be devalued by them. And we have treated our families and friends and church members and co-workers in like manner. The text reminds us of three common, timeless ways the system of definition and valuation works.

For one, we might define ourselves by and feel valuable because of our association with someone famous or important and what they stand for. The Greek word Paul uses for “quarrels” in the text suggests that the factions had their origins in interpersonal bickering, not grand theological principles. In other words, the Corinthians aligned themselves with various leaders in order to say something about themselves, like “Look at me—how smart or stylish or holy I am.” Paul stood for a progressive outlook on things as compared with Cephas, who represented the traditional rule-following crowd in the mother church in Jerusalem. So if you were a follower of Paul, you could look down your nose at those sticks in the mud and feel proud of what a broad-minded thinker you were. Apollos was a great speaker, maybe had an outgoing, winning personality, could have been good-looking, sophisticated, and cultured. A big contrast to Paul, who was a poor and boring speaker. To say you were with Apollos meant you also had great taste and appreciated a sophisticated, eloquent argument which you savored like fine wine. The Christ party felt proud of their holiness, their ability to stand aloof from petty human squabbles, above the fray and the dirt, and be spiritual. But even if they named the right Name, they did not have his Spirit.

Whoever they got behind, it was in order to matter, to be valuable, to feel and be important. We also need to feel that way. So we define ourselves or let ourselves be defined by whom we know. We become name-droppers. We follow celebrities on Twitter and Facebook. We label ourselves in the Church with the moniker of our favorite theologian. In civic life we tout which news network we like or how we think this or that politician has the right solutions. We try to convince others or ourselves that we belong in a certain class or social circle.

A recent episode of the TV series Downton Abbey has young Tom Branson, the chauffeur turned estate agent, dancing with a duchess at a house party given by Lord and Lady Grantham. The aristocrat, in an effort to make small talk, asks Tom if he knows this lord or that lady from Ireland, Tom’s homeland. But he doesn’t, and he has to keep saying “I know of him” or “I’ve heard of her.” Though he is in white tie and tails and had married the Grantham’s rebellious daughter Sybil, he is not really one of the upper crust. Later that evening, after the party fiasco, he confides in Edna, a lady’s maid: “I’ve never felt so alone as I have these past few days.” His loneliness, and a large glass of whiskey, lead to some poor decisions.

Tom did not feel valued and a part of things because he did not know anyone, really. He was defined by his background, his lack of a network going back to childhood. The need to know and be known, to belong and be accepted, to feel respected and part of something isn’t confined to 1920s England. It’s real for everybody, anytime. We try, sometimes desperately, and with bad consequences, to define ourselves and be defined as important, valuable, someone who matters, who should be noticed.

We also define and value ourselves by what we do or can do. And others try to define and value us the same way. The Jews of Paul’s day demanded that a religious leader’s claims about God be backed up with signs and wonders, miracles proving God was truly with him. He was validated by what he did. Reputation, character, acceptance by crowds were all are stake. Jesus, you recall from the gospels, did miracles, but refused the Pharisees’ and Herod’s demands for signs.

How often do we value ourselves by what we can do, what our talents are, what our job is or was? And don’t we allow others to determine our worth the same way? Yes, we have to have evaluations and talk about merit and performance in the workplace to get a paycheck or an award. But I’m talking about our fundamental value as human beings. How often have we felt worthless as a person if we are not needed or relevant or capable and competent? How much do we define ourselves by what we do?

But if we assign value based on personal associations or on what we do, so also do we define worth quite often according to what we know. Paul doesn’t have in mind here all knowledge and wisdom. He’s not railing against engineering or math or medicine, art or writing. He’s instead talking about the Greek philosophers, who were in their day what movie stars and sports heroes are for us. Some of them were pompous know-it-alls, who thrived on the acclaim of the crowds that listened to them; the more authority they were given, the more pumped up they got. Their basic position was to judge everything by what made sense to them according to their invented systems. They rejected anything that was not in their opinion reasonable and logical. So naturally a counter-intuitive claim about the cross as the power of God was dismissed as crazy. How could the weakness and vulnerability of a condemned man equal power?

When we claim to know something for sure, we are just as pumped up and proud as those ancient sages. When we try to get one up on somebody else because we have heard the latest gossip, when we say things like “everybody knows that. Have you been living under a rock?” we’re trying to get value for ourselves at somebody else’s expense. And especially when we say we know without a doubt what God intends, because “the Bible says it,” we are idolaters. The writer Dan Wilkinson has some pointed comments: “It is the Bible that is at the center of Fundamentalist and Evangelical faith, and it is the absolute, inerrant and infallible authority of the Bible that many Christians cling to as the essential doctrine of Christianity. The Holy Spirit is relegated to an afterthought. Logic and reason are of questionable value. Experience and emotion are sure to mislead. Tradition and church teaching have their place, but only insofar as they support Scripture….

“It’s precisely this sort of un-nuanced understanding of the Bible’s appropriate role in the life of a Christian that has led to so much discord within the church. It’s this sort of tortured logic that drives non-Christians up the wall. And it’s the advancement of the Bible as a panacea for life’s problems—and its inevitable failure to live up to that expectation—that leads so many Christians to walk away from their faith” (see note 1).

So we can see how many problems arise when value and self-definition are on the line. Is there some way to make ourselves less susceptible to being baited into a fight by what someone says or does? Can we lessen the need for being valued by others that quite often leads to conflict? I suppose we could develop a thick skin and isolate ourselves from human contact. But how sad would that be? Let me suggest instead that we refuse to adopt the standards of the world that tell us our value comes from whom we know, what we know, and what we can do. We stop taking so seriously both the praise and the criticism of others and listen to the one voice that matters, the call of the One who has redeemed us. We make our model the life of Christ. We remember that our identity is bound up in our baptism. We recall that the cross inverts the value systems we hold so dear and have bought into.

As someone has said: “Christ’s biography becomes our story: [as the text says] ‘We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.’

“It seems foolish until we begin to trust in this truth: signs and wisdom are bankrupt ideologies compared to the way of God, the way that overcomes everything, even our misperceptions of who we are or should be. I know that God has not brought to completion the good work started in me and that my conversion into the ways of God continues, but I know that God is working. You may not be the person God is calling you to be either. But you will be” (see note 2).

And the theologian Lillian Daniel has this: “Paul refuses to be the hero of his own story, the spiritual athlete who saves the day with his wisdom. He leans on God’s power, not his own, as he reminds the church that the world will not ultimately define them. “[He] refuses to allow others to belong to him, and in so doing he refuses to belong to himself. God’s story does not begin or end with him, but in Christ” (see note 3).

God has the final say. God is not subject to our categories and conditions and opinions. He gives us our worth, beyond and above and in spite of who we are. Small or big, rich or poor, foolish or wise, whoever we are, our Sovereign in his grace has declared us supremely valuable, worth the life of Jesus to deliver us. And when we accept his loving judgment about us, then boasting and competition and needing to prove ourselves end. We can genuinely appreciate others and join in community, unified though not uniform. We become confident in the care of God whose power will keep us until in his time all conflict ends and peace fills the earth.

Note 1: Dan Wilkinson, “Is ‘Biblical Truth’ all that matters?” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/unfundamentalistchristians/2014/01/is-biblical-truth-all-that-matters/

Note 2: Casey Thompson, http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2012-02/sunday-march-11-2012

Note 3: Lillian Daniel, “Foolish Belonging,” http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2002-01/foolish-belonging

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