* 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 8, 2014

John 1: Being Comfortable with Ourselves and Pointing to Others

The next section of the gospel of John sets up the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus. In John 1:19-34, we see a brief character sketch of John the Baptist before we are officially introduced to the character Jesus. Some scholars see evidence (in biblical and extrabiblical sources) that John the Baptist and Jesus had competing cults, and that eventually the Jesus cult received many of John's followers after John was executed. It is possible that John was the leader of a Mandaean sect. There are still some Mandaeans today in southern Mesopotamia, and they generally revere John the Baptist (among others) and reject Jesus of Nazareth. A significant Mandaic population in Iraq and Iran (tens of thousands of people) has dwindled in recent years due to war and religious persecution. If the Mandaic community and the new sect of Christianity were at odds with one another in the first century, it would provide some incentive for gospel writers to attempt to bridge that conflict in a way that placed their group in a superior position. Such a conflict, however, is largely conjecture at this point; the scant evidence that exists is only suggestive.

From just reading the story, we get an impression of the John the Baptist character, though. Here is a man of conviction, unafraid to stand up to the religious authorities of the predominant culture, and even impish enough to be a bit cryptic while he does it. John the Baptist reflects a person who knows himself, and isn't afraid of pointing the way to another leader or teacher. His rejection of the Pharisees is not simply a manifestation of authority issues or narcissism; he is willing to recognize true capability and wisdom when he sees it. This character sketch may have some value for us.

There are some other bits that make for a compelling story, but it would be rather fruitless to get too mired in details from a historical or factual perspective. There is simply too much time that passed between any actual events and the writing of this narrative, and there is no way to accurately guess what was going on in John the Baptist's mind. Did John refer to Jesus in such obsequious tones? Nobody can know, and it ultimately doesn't matter. Did John actually see a dove-like supernatural manifestation? Probably not, but he may have seen something that he interpreted as a supernatural event. Or he may have been having a heat stroke. Or he may have had other hallucinations that aren't recorded anywhere. Or he may have made things up to bolster his own identity as a mystic and to convince others of the veracity of his words. Other religious leaders have been known to do so. There's really no telling if any of this "actually" happened. It's a story. Let's take what we can from it and leave it at that.

So, this fellow John is the focus of these few paragraphs. He knows who he is, and he is presumably a capable leader of his sect (otherwise the Pharisees wouldn't care what he was doing). He is also able to see competence in others, and he is not intimidated by another capable leader. Quite the contrary--he recommends another capable leader to some of his own followers. He apparently does not base his own sense of personal value or identity on the behavior of other people. He doesn't base his self worth on people's reactions to him. He acts out of his own guiding principles and lets that be enough.

Some roles in our society require pointing to others. When a concert pianist performs a virtuosic solo, she shows up very differently from when she is accompanying a vocalist. In one instance, she is the star feature, and in the other she has a supporting role. It takes a slightly different set of musical skills to be an excellent accompanist. One has to be tuned into what the other performer is doing if one is to really collaborate in creating a musical experience. The same performer can be an excellent soloist and an excellent accompanist, but it requires a shift in attitude -- it requires showing up a little bit differently. I'm sure you can think of other roles that similarly require directing attention to others rather than to oneself.

We sometimes find ourselves in a roomful of people who want to be seen as capable, who want to be recognized as competent leaders. Often such people talk about themselves. A lot. They have an experience that relates to (and possibly trumps) whatever anyone else says. Or perhaps they have been down that road before and they have expert advice to share. We have all probably been in those conversations. Unfortunately, at some point in time, we have all probably been the person who wanted to share advice or who had a "better-than-you" story to tell.

Gaining a feeling of superiority and giving advice are reactions to the anxiety we feel when we want people to see us a certain way. This anxiety becomes particularly acute when we think that we might not actually be that competent, capable person we want people to see. When we are telling stories that trump other people's experiences or giving unsolicited expert advice (or doing anything else in an effort to seem better than somebody else), we are often trying to show up as somebody different than who we really think we are. We are trying to convince people of something about us, and perhaps we are not so convinced ourselves.

When we show up authentically, when we are honest about who we are and what we are capable of doing, people will notice. Part of this requires managing the anxiety that we feel when we want to be seen a certain way. For some people, it requires being visible -- showing up and being fully present rather than shrinking away from attention. Showing up authentically does not mean playing small any more than it means pretending to be more than we actually are. It means being honest about who we are and how we want to engage in the world.

John the Baptist (as he is portrayed here, at least) is an example of that sort of person. He is clear about how he wants to show up, and he seems to be relatively low-anxiety about that. He does his thing, and when another capable leader comes along, he acknowledges it. Now, John the Baptist may go a bit overboard in humiliating himself and propping up Jesus. No one needs the sort of boot-licking compliments that John the Baptist heaps on Jesus in this story. Compliments are nice, but people can be personally responsible for showing up authentically without us going off the deep end in our attempts to "sell" them to other folks. John saw something that impressed him about Jesus, though, and he wasn't threatened by it. He told other people that he saw something impressive without it needing to mean anything about John's capability.

Now, as we continue along in the story, we'll see that showing up authentically does not mean that everyone else is going to love you. Other people are still potentially wrapped up in their own anxiety, and their reactivity is out of our control. John the Baptist's authenticity gets him killed. Or maybe it is his lack of tact. We'll see. The point is that showing up authentically is not risk-free. The advantage is that we aren't pretending to be something different from who we really are. Knowing how we want to show up as a reflection of our deep values -- our guiding principles -- means that we give people an opportunity to see us more clearly. Some people will be attracted to that. Some people will be threatened by it. The real advantage is that we are at peace with ourselves -- that we have integrity. Who we are on the outside can reflect who we are on the inside.

Of course, the first trick to this is knowing ourselves better, and that requires managing our anxiety better. We all carry around fears and lies about who we are deep down inside, and how we think we have to show up so that no one sees the "truth" about us. We have to dismantle those fears and lies in order to be the people we most want to be. This story into which we're delving will point the way for some of this work.

For now, we can recognize that we don't need to be threatened by other competent, capable people. We can point to what impresses us about others without demeaning ourselves. (Are you listening, John the Baptist?) We don't need to trump other people's stories or give unsolicited advice in order to impress other people. When we show up reflecting the things that matter most to us, people will either be impressed or they won't. Our role is to live out of our deepest values.

A Little Experiment: The next time you are in a public setting, notice whether you are trying to be impressive or trying to compete with the people around you for attention or acknowledgment. If you're willing, try to relax into yourself and let go of that anxiety. Consider the possibility that you may not need to pretend to be something other than yourself in order to be seen the way you want to be seen.

Another Little Experiment: Be on the lookout for authentic people -- people who seem comfortable with themselves, who aren't giving unsolicited advice or trying to gain superiority through story-telling. Allow yourself to be impressed by other people's authenticity.

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