* 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

Monday, September 30, 2013

Mark 9: Stumbling Blocks and Concrete Overcoats

We are still mining a section of Mark 9 comprised of a string of short scenes with a couple of overlapping themes. Having considered the theme of authentic power a couple of weeks back, we're on to this business of causing another person to sin. Although it may be tempting to write this concept off and stand on the principle that all people have personal responsibility for their own actions, there is also truth to the statement that none of our decisions take place in a vacuum. Our actions have an influence on the people around us, and part of personal responsibility includes an appreciation for how what we do affects others.

The author of the gospel of Mark places the warnings about putting stumbling blocks in front of people quickly on the heels of using a child as an example, although the final scene of this chapter goes further than just talking about how people treat children. Still, what we learn as children sticks with us for a long time. As children, we make vows about how we must be and what we must do without even realizing that we're making vows. We also develop ideas about what or who we should be afraid of (or even hate) when we are children, when we are too young to even question why. So, it is especially important for adults to be conscientious about what we teach the children in our lives. Children cannot be held responsible for their beliefs about themselves, other people, or reality, but when children grow into adults, we expect them to suddenly be able to take responsibility for themselves. If we have filled the minds of the children in our lives with fear, what kind of adults do we expect them to be?

Children are not the only people susceptible to influence, though. Influential messages bombard us all the time in the form of advertising, political commentaries on television or radio, and less blatantly through just about every form of entertainment. We are responsible for aligning our beliefs and actions with our deep guiding principles rather than the influence of a paid angry or attractive spokesperson, but that isn't always an easy feat. We are also responsible for recognizing how our beliefs and actions influence adults around us. Bullying people into agreement, arguing from a position of half-informed righteous indignation, or promoting an identity of victimhood all come from fear. When we become afraid or anxious, and we lose our connection to our deepest selves, our influence on other people can be harmful. To make matters worse, our fear or anxiety can make us less aware of the impact we're having. Even though we can hold an expectation that other people should be emotionally mature and centered, and even though we aren't ultimately responsible for other people's behavior, it's better for us to empower other people to live based on their principles than it is for us to foster fear.

One interpretation of this scene in Mark is that the afterlife was seen to involve a continued physical existence. The author of the gospel of Mark is possibly saying that it's better to enter into a blessed afterlife maimed than to suffer in one's entirety. The gospels don't actually say much about hell, though, and even this passage is lacking much of its reference to hell in the earliest copies of the text. Plus, throughout the gospel narratives, the authors suggest (through words attributed to Jesus) that the kingdom of God (or the kingdom of Heaven, depending on who's writing) are not future-tense possibilities, but are present realities. Jesus is quoted as saying, "The kingdom of God is at hand," meaning, it's right here and now. So, perhaps the author of Mark is suggesting something else when he proposes mutilating oneself and entering the kingdom of God with a few parts missing.

If the kingdom of God is at hand, presently accessible to those willing to be a part of it, then it must not be a physical location. Perhaps as some have suggested, heaven is a state of mind -- a way of being. If so, then what is sin? And how can one's hand or eye or foot cause one to sin? Many people have pointed out that sin is an old archery term that essentially means, "to miss the mark." Some people would suggest that God sets the mark, but this is problematic, given that the supposed moral bull's eye established in the Hebrew Scriptures consists of a list of prohibitions that were impossible to keep, even for the ancient Israelites who invented it. If one considers Jesus to be a divine figure, a different mark was established in the gospels: love. Jesus' one big commandment was to love, and although that may be tricky to navigate in some situations, it's not a bad bull's eye for life. For people like myself, who don't recognize any superhuman divine beings, the bull's eye comes from deep guiding principles.

Sin, then, is what shifts our focus, the action that stems from something other than our guiding principles or the noblest form of love. Various believers might point to specific behaviors that constitute sin, but the problem is not really the behaviors. The problem is what lies at the root of the behaviors. As you may already have guessed, I believe that fear is what lies at the root of what the gospel writers call sin. When we allow fear to govern us, we forget about love or guiding principles and shift away from the mark we've set for who we want to be in the world. We let fear about ourselves, other people, or reality prompt our actions rather than bringing our most authentic selves forward. I'm not keen on what the church has done with the concept of sin, because it has become a weapon of judgment and condemnation wielded by people who have no more reason than anyone else to feel righteous. Fear is something that affects all people, but we are also all capable of dismantling fear if we choose to do so.

The point, then, is that your hand can't cause you to miss the mark. If you steal something with your hand or strike someone with your fist, your hand doesn't make you do those things. The fear within you that clouded over your deep guiding principles fueled those actions.
Your foot can't cause you to miss the mark. If you step on someone as you ascend whatever ladder of success you're climbing or turn around when you see an opportunity to help someone less fortunate, your foot doesn't make you do those things. The fear within you that clouded over your compassion for and connection to other human beings fueled those actions.
Your eye can't cause you to miss the mark. If you see other people as objects to be manipulated or you remain willfully blind to how your actions harm the people around you, your eye doesn't make you do those things. The fear within you that clouded over your capacity for love fueled those actions.
So, if we're going to amputate the cause of our "sin," our physical body isn't what we need to operate on. We need to amputate our fear.

Since Spencer Johnson and Sheryl Sandberg made it famous, the question has often been asked, but bears repeating:
What would you do if you weren't afraid?

I don't know what you're afraid of. You may fear scarcity -- that there isn't enough _________ for you and everyone else, so you have to protect what you have and do everything you can to get what you deserve. You may fear that, deep down, you are selfish or worthless at your core -- that you have to do everything you possibly can to prove how generous and worthwhile you are, including pleasing everybody around you, even at the expense of your own well-being. You may fear people of a certain ethnicity, religion, or sexual identity. You may fear that you are insignificant. Anything you fear -- especially irrationally -- can distract you from what actually matters most to you. Fear can prompt you to behave in ways that simply don't line up with who you most want to be in the world. Staying immersed in our irrational fears and expecting to be principled or loving people is like putting on a concrete overcoat and expecting to be able to swim. Dismantling our irrational fears opens the way for our guiding principles to be lived out more intentionally.

I'll bet you just glossed over it a paragraph back. Think about it:

What would you do if you weren't afraid?
          What would you create?
                    What would you stand for?
                              How would you be more authentically yourself more of the time?

The author of Mark includes a few sentences about salt at the end of this scene. Many people would suggest that salt symbolized purity for a great many ancient religions. If that's what salt means in this instance, the author of Mark is saying, "Have purity in yourselves, and be at peace with one another." When we live with integrity (or purity) to our deep guiding principles, we can be more connected with the people around us -- and even with people far away from us. Fear is not wise or just or compassionate or even honest. It's hard to live at peace with people -- even people about whom we care deeply -- if we keep fear in the driver's seat. If we recognize our ability to live with integrity by meaningful guiding principles, we can be at peace with others, because we trust our deepest, most noble selves.

So, with or without any religious convictions about Jesus' identity, the words of this section of the gospel of Mark can prompt us to have some conviction about our own identities. We do not need to be people defined by fear. We can be people defined by a deeper sense of truth, beauty, and creativity inherent to all human beings. We can be people who exhibit justice and compassion without suspicion or obligation. We can be people defined by vulnerable, authentic love. Some might call that a glimpse of the kingdom of God. Some might just call it being fully human.

What will you do as a capable, authentic, beautiful, creative human being?

Monday, September 23, 2013

Isaiah 1: Seeking Justice

We have seen that Israel and Judah were vassals of Assyria, and that rebellious actions on the part of Israel's king Hoshea led to destruction and exile at the hands of the Assyrians. King Hezekiah will court disaster at the hands of the Assyrians as well, but Isaiah's career began before then. The book of Isaiah was written by authors in the southern kingdom of Judah, and scholars generally think it was composed during three different periods. The first portion of the book may have been written by an actual prophet named Isaiah, or it may simply have been attributed to a figure that held a prominent place in the public eye as a spokesman for Yahweh. The first 39 chapters of the book of Isaiah address events during the 8th century BCE, and even within this span of the book there is evidence of editorial activity. We'll make mention of that as we go.

Isaiah 1 starts off with a bang, as the author pours invective upon Judah. He describes a situation in which the wealthy and powerful practice corruption and ignore the poor and destitute. He predicts a future time of destruction, in which the land is laid to waste because of the attitudes and actions of the people. Of course, as an Israelite, the author attributes any success or failure to Yahweh, but he is especially concerned that people are ignoring the cultural expectations regarding the treatment of other human beings. These expectations are thought to have come from Yahweh, and yet certain expectations about religious activity -- sacrifices, ceremonies, and holy days -- were also thought to come from Yahweh. The religious activities seemed to be easy for the people to pay attention to, but the care for fellow human beings was a tougher thing to accomplish. The author of Isaiah thus denounces the piety of the people who think they are doing what their god wants just because they participate in required ceremonies; in the eyes of the author, Yahweh expects more of them.

Reference is made to Sodom and Gomorrah, cities that were supposedly destroyed by Yahweh because of their unwillingness to exercise hospitality and care for the strangers in their midst. Judah is no better, according to the writer, because they are trampling the orphan and widow, the poor and oppressed, for the sake of personal gain. There is still hope, however, because the people can change their behavior. If they start practicing justice -- treating people equally and humanely -- they can turn things around. The author places the illusion of power in Yahweh's hands, but it is clearly the actions of the people that will determine the outcome of their land.

Some people in the twenty-first century still believe that God is in control of all sorts of events, and they believe that the Bible indicates a certain supremacy of a supernatural divine. This is certainly the case, but it isn't the only thing the Bible says. The ultimate authority of a biblical depiction of God is balanced with ultimate responsibility of people for their own actions. If the words of this chapter of Isaiah are valid, all is not carved in stone for the people addressed. Their default future, if they maintain their current course, is destruction. By seeking justice, they can change their future. The important thing is not that they go to church more, or pray more or better, or sacrifice more or better; the important thing is that they care for people. The important thing is justice.

History is a tricky when it comes to these sorts of writings. Assyria didn't wind up conquering Judah, but a century and a half after the fall of Israel, Judah fell to the Babylonians, with prophets of the time saying a lot of the same things about the need for justice. One thing is clear from the historical record. Every time there has been a civil war or a rebellion throughout human history, it is because one group of people perceived that intolerable injustice was being perpetrated by another group of people. The people who rebel are not always victorious, but the motivation for rebellion is nearly always the perception of injustice.

Whether one believes in God or not, the need for justice is written into the fabric of our beings. Human beings throughout time have tended toward freedom in some form or another, and inequality has consistently caused strife in human communities. The admonitions of Isaiah 1 ring as true today as they did in the 8th century BCE; our religious practices don't mean a hill of beans if we aren't tending to our society. Prayer and piety is actually offensive and blasphemous if our actions don't reflect certain values. For the ancient Israelites and for many believers today, human beings are thought to have been created in the image of God. What does it mean to mistreat someone created in the image of the divine? What must one think of the divine in order to mistreat another human being?

From a perspective that doesn't recognize supernaturalism, one can perhaps even more clearly see the value of people. There aren't a lot of religious trappings to get in the way; remove the sacrifices, prayers, and ceremonies, and you are still left with a world full of people. By now, you know that my personal perspective is that whatever we call the divine is an inherent human quality, or collection of qualities. All people have a deep self that understands truth, embodies beauty, and expresses creativity, even though they often act out of irrational fear. The humanist position is not to approve of every action a person takes under the guise of acceptance; the goal is to recognize that even people who act unjustly or discompassionately or even violently are still human beings with inherent value. Their actions have consequences, but they don't have less value as people. This isn't an easy position, but in wrestling with difficult principles, we get better at living with integrity.

It's tempting to live by a set of principles in my own personal life and let other people do as they will. I can feel good about seeking justice, treating people equally, and responding with compassion to the people I encounter, even if I don't stretch beyond the borders of my own life. I can even say that I try to model behavior for others, which suggests that I am inviting a broader impact than just the confines of my own life. Yet, people will rarely know what I am modeling if I don't tell them. I shouldn't assume that any random onlooker will know why I make the choices I make or why they might get something out of emulating the behavior I'm modeling. At some point, seeking justice draws me out from the confines of my own life.

This often seems counter-cultural for a society in which people are supposed to mind their own business and avoid offending anyone. We can complain about injustice or inequality to like-minded individuals, but it's often frowned upon to make any sort of public statement regarding unjust systems or practices. When we do take a stand, it's often couched in the form of blasting one political party or the other in an angry rant that actually does nothing to help any oppressed people, even though it may make us feel righteous. Our deepest selves call us to more than that. Whether we believe that it is God's will or we just recognize our innate connection to other human beings, there is truth to Martin Luther King Jr's statement that "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

Isaiah was not written as a call to the poor and destitute to rise up and claim justice for themselves. It was written as an admonition for the wealthy and privileged to exercise greater awareness and love for the human beings they tended to overlook or discount. Isaiah was not talking about being kind and just only to respectable people. This chapter is about treating the oppressed and overlooked with dignity and compassion.

For us, this means ensuring that women are not treated as second class citizens, that women are respected as equal participants in the world, that girls are not sold into slavery and treated as animals or playthings. While we tolerate sex trafficking and forced underage prostitution anywhere in the world, we deny the principle that all people have inherent worth and dignity (or that they are created in the image of God).

For us, this means listening to the interests of the homosexual, bisexual, and transgender communities, not discounting their interest in marriage and families as an affront to society, and welcoming human beings with different ways of loving and being without feeling threatened in our own ways of loving and being. While we tolerate the criminalization or persecution of homosexual, bisexual, or transgender human beings anywhere in the world, we deny the principle that all people have inherent worth and dignity (or that they are created in the image of God).

For us, this means acknowledging the persistence of racism and legitimately working to see beyond skin color, language, religion, and cultural idiosyncrasies to the actual people who share our world. It means recognizing the desire for people to make a livable wage and live in safety. It means finding ways for cooperation and partnership, so that people are empowered to be personally responsible, and it means being honest about the inequities of wealth and consumption that damage the entire world for a few to maintain an illusion of entitlement and superiority. While we tolerate hostility toward the Other anywhere in the world, we deny the principle that all people have inherent worth and dignity (or that they are created in the image of God).

This doesn't mean picketing or sending thousands of dollars overseas or marching on Washington (although it could, and there's nothing wrong with it if that's what you do). Sometimes justice is honestly a matter of how we treat people and how we speak up for people. Justice might mean letting our friends know that we won't participate in ethnic slurs or activities that demean women. Justice might mean educating ourselves about service organizations that could benefit from a few hours of our time every month or every week. Justice might mean doing everything in our power not to freak out when a friend or loved one or child comes out -- and it might mean finding a way to celebrate that person even when his or her identity becomes scarily unfamiliar to us -- to embrace people even when we don't quite understand them.

None of this is easy, but it seems to be the most honest interpretation of Isaiah 1 in the realities of global economics and communication. I believe in these words, and yet I still find myself judging other people or preferring not to get involved or speak out. I am learning and growing even as I continue to engage my beliefs thoughtfully and purposefully. None of this admonition is intended as a guilt trip; it's simply a point blank statement of the work that we have yet to do if it is important to us to create a just, equitable, and compassionate reality. We do not need the threat of destruction from on high to convince us that this is a good and noble thing, but in case that sort of threat is motivating, we see that in Isaiah as well. Rather than act nobly out of fear, though, we can act nobly because we are noble. We can act justly because we are just people. We show compassion because we are compassionate. When we act with integrity to our deepest principles, we state clearly that we are people of integrity. Our authentic identities are the only reason we need to seek justice, to treat all people with respect, and to see whatever we call divine in the face of every person.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Mark 9: Authentic Power

The next portion of Mark 9 is a string of short scenes with a couple of overlapping themes. As such, they are probably best approached over two weeks rather than trying to fit everything into one entry. We'll look first at the scenes, and then at how the authors of Matthew and Luke treat them, and finally we'll consider the argument about greatness. Next week, we'll look closer at what it means to "cause another person to sin," especially in a more humanist context that doesn't grant validity to the idea of sinfulness.

Both the gospel of Matthew and the gospel of Luke include a version of the first scene, in which the disciples argue about which of them will be in positions of authority when the Romans are overthrown and a new world order is established by their revolutionary leader. The response recorded indicates that they have some misconceptions about the new measure of leadership that is being established. This scene is followed by what appears to be a threat to Jesus' brand, as another miracle worker is seen performing some wondrous deeds without the direct approval of Jesus or his followers. The gospel of Matthew doesn't represent this scene, but the author of Luke included a truncated version of it. Once again, the response to the disciples' indignation is a revision to their assumptions about authority.

In the gospel of Matthew, the final scene in this grouping is dovetailed into the discussion of leadership, with the symbolic child being the bridge between the two passages. The author of Luke includes an abbreviated version of the teaching, separated from the scenes about leadership and authority. This scene suggests that the people who promote wrongdoing (or wrong thinking) in others will suffer for it, with symbolism suggesting that the author had an impression that individuals would have some kind of physical bodies in the afterlife.

This is also one of the passages that has given us a perspective of hell as a fiery place, but the actual word used here (Gehenna) refers to a specific place, also called the Valley of the Son of Hinnom in the Old Testament. It was here that Moloch and Ba'al worshipers (some of whom were Israelites) are said to have sacrificed their children to the fire. Since no mass graves of children's bones have been discovered anywhere in the area, many archaeologists and scholars have concluded that the symbolic sacrifices were something more akin to child dedications involving fire. Obviously, upstanding Jewish citizens would disapprove of parents dedicating children to a foreign god, and they would have had obvious reasons for equating such dedication as tantamount to sacrificing the child's spiritual future. The author of Mark puts clever words in Jesus' mouth, suggesting that anyone who is a negative spiritual influence on a child will be punished not just by being sacrificed to a fire, but by a fire that never quits consuming -- a darkly ironic Gehenna that is never quenched. We'll return to this passage next week, but it's obvious that the author of Matthew connects it with the earlier discussion of who deserves to be in positions of power.

We don't have to try very hard to find modern day parallels to the two earlier scenes in this passage. Sometimes we become quite preoccupied with what our position is, in the microcosms of our life as well as in a broader sense. We find ways to measure our level of power, whether in terms of the titles bestowed upon us, the amount of money we have, the number of friends (or "friends") we have in our networks, or some other scale that represents power to us. Some people are impressed by those who seem to have an air of authority, people who just exude self-confidence or seem to have an unshakably high opinion of themselves. The lesson expressed through Jesus in this passage suggests that all of this is valueless. These things are illusions that have no real bearing on what matters most. More important than how much apparent power one wields is how well one serves, particularly how well one serves those who are unable to do anything in terms of compensation.

A child is used as a powerful example here of the kinds of relationships that most reflect how well any of us understand what is most important. A child cannot pay us for our actions. A child cannot award titles or promotions. A child can't even vote in the next election. A child can do very little to increase our apparent power. Yet, if we are truly aware of ourselves -- if we are adept at dismantling fears about scarcity and insignificance, if we practice living with integrity by guiding principles that reflect something deeper than titles and dollar signs -- then we will likely be paying attention more to what we can do for other people than we will what other people can do for us. It won't matter that a person will be unable to offer us anything for our efforts (including a chance to have our picture in the paper and a headline with the word "Hero"). What will matter is that we have an opportunity to act with integrity to a deeply held value.

When we start thinking in terms of our role in the pecking order, or our position in a hierarchy, we can start determining personal value (of ourselves and of others) based on superficial details. Our value as human beings is not based on apparent power. It's an inherent trait that all human beings have in common. Chains of command and hierarchies of responsibility have their usefulness, but their benefits do not include knowing a person's value based on place within a hierarchy. People who wield authority have greater responsibility (as is indicated by the discussion about diving suits fitted with millstones), but they do not have greater value as human beings.

We determine how our human capability will be expressed in our lives. If we release our need to be seen as powerful, our actual capability will have more of a chance to shine through with authenticity. Our fears about there not being enough respect or love or admiration to go around can cloud our thinking on this to some extent, but we really don't know what the world would look like if everyone stopped worrying and started living out of their deepest guiding principles. If everyone stopped being afraid and just loved, we might all look pretty powerful. The truth is that we all are powerful, and we don't need to prove it to anyone. We are all capable of incredible acts of love and creativity. We are all capable of being peacemakers. We are all capable of profound feats of connection. We are all capable of seeing the inherent worth in people who seem to be doing their very best to keep it hidden.

The disciples in the story were concerned (probably even angry) because someone else was stealing their schtick. You've probably already seen through this as more fear of scarcity being expressed. There were then, as there are now, plenty of hurting people to go around. The point behind helping people was not then, as it need not be now, a chance to make a name for oneself, or an opportunity to get appointed to a position of authority, or a way to get ahead financially. The point behind helping people was and is to help people. The point behind living with integrity and intentionality was and is to live with integrity and intentionality. Being authentic and exercising one's full capability is the reward; our relationships with other people are just the context in which we get to be authentic and capable.

There was a book a while back with a title suggesting that if we do what we are passionate about -- what "feeds our soul" some might say -- then financial well being will come automatically. The content of the book revealed something different, that if we do what we love, then the satisfaction of doing what we love will follow. That's potentially a discouraging message to people who are caught up (like the disciples were in these scenes) with concerns about apparent power, market share, and personal brand management. The message of these scenes is not intended to be discouraging at all, though. The author of Mark is conveying that if we recognize what really matters to us and we intentionally live like those things really matter to us, we will be noticed by all the people we need to be noticed by and we will have all of the things we need to be happy.

Honestly, we may not have all of the wealth or apparent power that we want, or all that will allow our every whim to be entertained. The point, though, is that we don't get any closer to living by our deepest guiding principles by prioritizing wealth or wielding power over others. In other words, we've allowed our standards to become skewed toward something artificial and superficial. Most likely, we've done this because looking inward at what really matters most to us is scary at some level. Some people are afraid that they won't find much there at all if they look within, and others are afraid that if they are honest about their deepest guiding principles, their entire life will have to change. Maybe it will. The message of these scenes in Mark is that it will be worth it: Realize what really matters. Change your standards. Change your life -- and quite possibly the lives of everyone around you. It's an image of authentic power that any of us can choose to embrace.

Monday, September 9, 2013

2 Chronicles 29-31: Appearances vs Authenticity

We'll soon be turning to the books of Isaiah and Micah, which were attributed to two "prophets" or outspoken spiritual commentators (preachers) during the time of King Hezekiah, who probably came to the throne in Judah a few years after the kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians. The authors of 2 Kings actually place the fall of Samaria six years into Hezekiah's reign, but it's difficult to make the dates work out with what is known of the dates of other rulers in the Ancient Near East. Some scholars propose that a practice of co-regency accounts for any apparent discrepancies. At the very least, we know that Hezekiah's reign (and in general the conflict between Assyria and Judah), is very well attested in extra-biblical sources. Hezekiah was a heroic ruler in the eyes of the Jewish historians, and it appears that his reign saw a surge in population, literacy, and power, potentially fed by Israelites fleeing south from Assyrian forces.

The Chronicler indicates much more about Hezekiah's religious reforms than the authors of 2 Kings. He started by ordering a group of Levites (the tribe that had exclusively been assigned duties of caring for the temple) to clean up the temple and get rid of any paraphernalia that represented the encroachment of foreign religions. Then Hezekiah hosted an extravagant sacrifice and public celebration for the people in Jerusalem, followed by an invitation to all worshipers of Yahweh in the surrounding areas to celebrate Passover properly in Jerusalem. According to the biblical record, his efforts were so successful that they extended the celebration for an additional seven days. This may have been due, at least in part, to Hezekiah's contribution of eight thousand animals for the ceremonies, augmented by another eleven thousand animals from Jewish officials (who were possibly "encouraged" to do so by their king).

After all of that, Hezekiah organized task forces to go around the entire kingdom and tear apart any worship sites that would detract from the state religion, with the end result that the Temple got all of the offerings that had been dispersed among various alternative worship practices. Very clever. While Hezekiah insisted on tolerance for people with different concepts of the state religion (2 Chron 30:18-19), he oversaw profound intolerance for any other religious practices. As Micah will report, that didn't make everything perfect, but the Chronicler has only praise for Hezekiah's leadership in these efforts. By all appearances, spiritual order had been restored and the country was prospering.

Even with the controls inherent in a theocratic dictatorship, and even with a great leader like Hezekiah, there are limits to what enforced religious practice can accomplish. People can become very adept at outward appearances while still continuing to live by fear of scarcity or a sense of entitlement. In other words, changing the visible religious practices of a community does not necessarily change the inward character of the people in that community. This is a problem to which various prophets call attention. We can certainly observe the character and practices of ancient people from afar and draw some conclusions about those people. However, we get more value from looking at our own character and practices with bold honesty.

So often, we spend our time and energy on appearances. We want to appear pure, good, right, noble, strong, charitable, trustworthy, competent, lovable, or whatever package of traits it happens to be for a given individual. We want people to see admirable qualities in us. We make our temples look clean and we make our sacrifices abundant, even extravagant. Hezekiah was trying to make up for a legacy of inappropriate behavior, and he went to great lengths to make a public show that things were going to be different. For some people, things probably were different. Hezekiah certainly seems to have been acting out of sincerity. He didn't really require that people change their lives all that much, though. People could still be as ruthless in business as they were before, or as discompassionate to the alien and impoverished as they were before, as long as they worshiped the way they were "supposed to." Changing people's character would require an entirely different kind of reform.

We are often the same way. We sometimes change the outward displays without bothering to change the inward motivations. We try to hide all of the things that we are afraid of or ashamed of about ourselves and display the person we want people to see instead. It's a lot of work for some of us, and it's work that never ends, because the things we are afraid of or ashamed of about ourselves never really get addressed.

What is it for you? For me, I often do battle with the fear that I am really a selfish person at my core. On top of that, I have an "inner critic" that likes to tell me that I'm not _____ enough. I know both of those things are false, but sometimes I wind up spending energy trying to prove my own inner lies about myself wrong, instead of spending my energy proclaiming what is true about myself. It occurs to me that if I spent more time working on dismantling the lies and living out of what is true, I would have a lot less worry about what other people see when they look at me. If I live out my authentic, capable, beautiful, noble, creative self, I don't have to worry about appearances.

So, that is one challenge that emerges from this passage about Hezekiah. What are you doing just for the sake of appearances, and how does that distract you from meaningful personal development? What would be wrong with just being your authentic self? What are you afraid people are going to see if you stop worrying about appearances and just allow your own deep guiding principles to inform your actions?

I certainly don't mean that what people see in us doesn't matter. To be clear, I gain a lot of insight from what other people notice about my demeanor and behavior. The more vulnerable I am willing to be with people, the more I get from other people's observations. So, by suggesting that we worry less about appearances, I don't mean that we should abandon personal hygiene or let fly every petty judgment that pops into our brains. I mean that our outward behavior can be more authentically influenced by our own inner values than by our fear about what other people will think. I mean that our time and energy is better spent nurturing our own integrity rather than nurturing a less-than-authentic image. We have nothing to fear about how people see us if we recognize what matters most deeply to us and live out those values with authenticity and integrity. Honestly, I'd rather be an authentic person than a person with a well-rehearsed persona. Maybe you agree.