* 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

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

John 1: People Notice Authenticity

In the last section of John 1, we meet the main character of the story. We can draw some insights from the behavior of the disciples (students) in this brief summary of how they came to be associated with Jesus, and we can draw some insights from the behavior of Jesus. We might find ourselves situated in multiple places in this narrative. In a way, this flows directly from our observations about John the Baptist's authenticity and brings forward some additional things about people who are authentic.

Part of the purpose of this segment of the story is to legitimize -- or at least relate -- the brief origin stories of some of the significant legendary figures in the early church. This story is not identical to other stories about how the followers of Jesus were assembled, but it serves as an introduction to these men and defines their connection to one another. It appears that all of these initial followers were friends or family members of one another. We can't overplay this observation, because we don't actually have any written materials from any of these followers. We know them (and their relationships) only by tradition. Still, it is perhaps worth noting that the reason people gathered in community around this teacher is because of the invitations of friends and family members -- people who were known and trusted.

Various readers might try to make a big deal about how Jesus knows the things that he knows about people -- as if he had some supernatural insights about them. We aren't explicitly told that he has any telepathic powers, but people read their own impressions into the story. In the context of the story, it's just as likely that Andrew could say to Jesus, "I want to bring my brother to meet you," and the next day Jesus said, "Ah, you're that guy that Andrew was going to bring." And it's just as likely that Jesus literally saw Nathaniel sitting under a fig tree and formed an opinion about him. It's also worth remembering that it's a story that has no means of being verified, so we have to just let it be a story. The point is that it's a story about human interaction, not about superhuman abilities.

In noticing what the story leaves out at this point, two things seem apparent. First, we read nothing about those people who ignored or rejected Jesus as a teacher. We only read about the handful of individuals who saw something worth emulating in Jesus. We also only read one instance of Jesus "calling" someone, and that person seems to have known some other folks who were traveling with Jesus. Everyone who decides to follow this leader makes a personal choice to do so; they aren't all sought out and tapped by the leader as if they had been destined for it since birth.

On the one hand, if we want people to know about what we are doing, we have to talk about what we are doing at some point. That may not mean calling people to follow us, but there are some people who will only consider collaboration when they are invited into it. Maybe that was what was going on with Philip. Who knows. The truth that this story highlights, though, is that if we are authentically ourselves, we will attract people who want to know more about how we developed that ability. It's rare enough to see someone show up authentically that people still find it rather impressive. We won't attract everyone by showing up authentically, but that isn't the point. It isn't a marketing tactic. It's a way of being.

By suggesting that we be authentically ourselves, I'm also not suggesting that we do whatever we want and act like we rule the world. That isn't actually authentic. The attitude that some individuals adopt that seems to suggest that they own the road, or a restaurant, or a store clerk's attention, is far from authentic. Equally inauthentic are those of us who play small and pretend to be invisible, as if we have nothing to contribute and we don't want anyone to find out how worthless we are. In order to show up authentically, we have to be aware of ourselves and aware of our connection to the people around us. It means not pretending to be something we aren't, neither more nor less than our complete selves.

Some people will be attracted to that level of authenticity for different reasons. A couple of John's disciples jumped ship and decided to learn from Jesus instead. Maybe they had learned all they could from John. Maybe they just didn't like what John was teaching them. We have a tendency to do this kind of thing, too. We want to grow or learn something, but when a teacher or situation challenges us beyond our comfort zone, our fear may provoke us to run away and look for something else. We concoct all sorts of excuses, but sometimes the most honest reason we do things is that we are scared.

To complicate matters, there are legitimately some circumstances that are unhealthy or unhelpful to us. We may actually be ready to move on to something else. Some teachers misrepresent themselves, perhaps even unknowingly. If we stay in a situation out of a sense of loyalty, we might actually convince ourselves to stay in relationships that are detrimental to us -- that don't lead to greater well-being. So, we have to consider why we are choosing to do what we choose to do. If we leave one relationship for another without thinking through the honest reasons why -- not just the convenient excuses to cover up our fears and anxieties -- we are likely to find ourselves in similar situations over and over again.

Some of the people who approach Jesus in the story have to get over their own prejudices. "Can anything good come from Nazareth?" is not far off from some of the assumptions we make about the capabilities of people who come from different cultures. When we buy into the idea that people are intrinsically different just because they have some different practices or beliefs, we run the risk of considering ourselves to be worth more than other human beings by virtue of superficial things. When we understand that all people have inherent value, but that we all have different perspectives, we have a better opportunity to assess ideas honestly and still honor and respect the human beings who hold those different ideas. From one perspective, we are trying to "win" somehow -- to be right or to be better than someone else. From the other, we might grow toward a best possible version of ourselves by remaining open to other points of view.

We said early on in introducing this book that we would be meeting ourselves -- or at least our potential selves -- in observing the main character of Jesus. In this story about gathering people in community, we see the possibility of understanding ourselves and our connection to others so clearly that other people notice something compelling about how we show up. We might expect that the rest of the story will suggest some of the means to grow toward that level of authenticity. For now, let it suffice to say that we often show up the way we think other people expect us to show up, or we show up reacting to other people out of our anxieties about ourselves. When we are comfortable with our deep values and we show up confident in our authentic identity -- not pretending to be more or less than who we really are -- people will notice.

A Little Experiment: Our journey begins with noticing how we are -- how we choose to be. Notice this week when you are trying to "win" something you don't need to win, like driving or drawing the attention of a store clerk away from another customer. Notice also when you are letting yourself pretend to be invisible or playing small, like not speaking in a conversation or trying not to be noticed. What is going on for you when you are trying to prove your importance or hide from people? What would it be like for you to be more authentically present? More aware of who you actually are and more aware of your connection to (and impact on) other people? What would it take for you to be comfortable showing up without any sort of mask?

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