* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Mark 6:1-29: How Our Opinions of Other People Inform Our Actions (maybe more than they should)

In the beginning of Mark 6, Jesus returns to his hometown (which interestingly remains unnamed in the gospel of Mark) and people are not altogether enthusiastic about what he has to say. This is where we find the well-known quote, "A prophet is not without honor except in his own town." After that disappointing episode, Jesus sends his disciples out and tells them not to waste their time with people who won't listen. They are to shake the dust off their shoes and move on. This was a bit of an insult in the time, as if to say, "There is nothing here worth taking with me, not even the dirt." Next, we read a bit of a flashback regarding the circumstances under which Herod had John the Baptist beheaded. Essentially, he was seduced by his daughter (or step-daughter) into doing something he didn't particularly want to do. In these three stories, we find some interesting lessons about how we see other people, and how we choose whether to give other people power over us.

It's rather obvious why a prophet would have trouble in his hometown, among people who saw the individual grow up, get into trouble as a teenager, work a trade, and eventually abandon being a productive member of society to be an itinerant preacher, and a preacher unaffiliated with the state church at that. We make rather quick judgments about people, and the impressions we have of the people we know stick over time. It is as if we have taken a snapshot of an individual at a particular point in time, and whenever we interact with that individual, we rely on our snapshot rather than the current reality of who that person is. We don't always notice when people grow and change, because we have a rigid impression that becomes ingrained very quickly. It takes a bit of effort to see a person as they are and recognize every step of growth and progress they make in their lives. We don't necessarily want to understand people very deeply; we think we already do understand what a person is about based on the snapshot we keep in our mind.

Thus, when a person tries to kick an old habit or develop a new discipline, it's often the people who have known that person for a long time that present the greatest challenges. Maybe we don't actually want people to change all that much. When people change, it suggests that our reality is unstable--that we can't rely on things to remain as we expect them to be. Whatever the reason, we often have a difficult time hearing unexpected things from people who are most familiar to us. The reverse is also true: The people who have known us the longest are likely to have the hardest time hearing unexpected things from us. This does not mean that we should never change. Responsible, aware people will always be growing in some way, and growth necessarily translates as change at some level. Part of growth involves not basing our self-worth on other people's opinions, but rather on deeper, honest self-assessment based on an intentional set of guiding principles.

This is why the disciples were told to shake the dust off of their shoes and move on. There is often nothing to be gained by arguing one's point of view with someone who simply cannot hear what you have to say. An individual's inability to listen, however, reflects more about them than about you. The disciples would have done well to listen respectfully in addition to hearably presenting the truth as they saw it, but at the end of the day, if someone wasn't interested in the disciples' perspective, there was little value in sticking around.

It would be a mistake to extrapolate too much from that story, however. Some relationships are worth a bit of extra effort. Sometimes a person needs to see reliable, dependable behavior that reflects deeper convictions over time before becoming open enough to hear truth spoken clearly. Most of us can afford to give people multiple chances, otherwise we are relying on a snapshot of a person that may be inaccurate and obsolete as soon as we have filed it away. The important part is not that we write people off or dismiss those who disagree with us. The important part is that we do not base our deep guiding principles on whether other people agree with or accept us. People can ask some incredible questions that help us to sharpen and refine the principles on which we most want to base our actions, and they can challenge us in positive ways even if they don't agree with us. So, the goal is to be very clear with oneself so that one can connect with other people without placing demands on them or making assumptions about them.

Herod is an example of what happens when we do otherwise. By the biblical account, Herod was not a very secure individual. In fact, he was quite emotionally immature, often making decisions based on fear rather than on a grounded set of principles. When Herodias' daughter (named Salome in some other accounts) dances for Herod and his guests, he promises to grant her anything she desires. Even though he is intrigued by John the Baptist, he has the prophet executed because he was unwilling to tell the girl, "No." It is easy to imagine that Herod was experiencing a significant amount of anxiety in that moment, and in the many moments that followed. There are probably many things he feared would happen if he did not honor his promise. He sacrificed his own self-governance and abdicated personal responsibility instead of standing by a set of intentional principles.

We are capable of doing better than Herod, and in some ways, we may be in a position to do better than Jesus and the disciples. Jesus and his disciples did not keep visiting places over and over again and giving people second, third, or eleventh chances, and it is possible for a person with well-defined guiding principles to model a different way of being over and over again with the same individual or group. The goal, after all, is not to convince other people how they ought to live, but rather to fully inhabit our own lives -- to be the best versions of ourselves that we can be. This does not require anyone else's approval; it just requires our own willingness to grow. As we become more clear about who we want to be in the world, we will likely conflict with the snapshots that other people have of us. As we create the lives we most want, we are also likely to find that some of our own snapshots are outdated and inaccurate. We don't need to be afraid of seeing reality as it is. In fact, being honest about current reality is the only way to move forward into a vision of something better.

So, from this first portion of Mark 6 we learn not to base our self-image on the opinions of others, but to develop a set of deep guiding principles that will lead us toward the lives we most want to create. We learn that giving power to other people can lead us to make decisions that go against what we actually want to create in the world. And we learn that we cannot control other people's reactions to us; we can only control our own beliefs and actions. People have inherent value, but people's opinions are sometimes based on fears and falsehood rather than a deep sense of truth, beauty, and creativity. So, are your actions lining up with your guiding principles? How are you allowing other people to determine your sense of value? In what ways are you playing small because you fear what other people will say or think? What would it look like if you pushed past that fear and inhabited yourself more authentically?

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