* 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, March 30, 2015

John 12: Loving and Hating Life (and considering the donkey)

After the story about foot-anointing as an unabashed act of appreciation, the chapter continues with several short scenes interspersed with passages from Hebrew scripture. The synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) more frequently suggest that Old Testament words predicted things about Jesus, but here even the authors of John suggest that Jesus did certain things as a "fulfillment" of prophecies. Especially when we remember that the gospel of John was composed more than 50 years after a historical Jesus would have lived, this raises a few questions. We'll take the remainder of the chapter in two large chunks over the next couple of weeks. First, John 12:9-26.

To begin with, we find the Jewish priests having more murderous thoughts, now focused on Lazarus because his resurrection had understandably impressed some people. Why it didn't impress the Pharisees is unexplained. I suppose it is the plot of a number of horror movies that when a person comes back from the dead it isn't necessarily a good thing, but we have nothing in the biblical text to suggest that Lazarus was doing anything untoward after he returned. Actually, the biblical text doesn't suggest that Lazarus did anything, period. Was this passage just to paint the Jewish leaders in a poor light?

Obviously, every saga needs a villain, and the Jewish leaders are the villains of the gospel of John. In our lives, we also face people who can't see the good that people do because they are focused on undermining some sworn enemy. The Pharisees in the biblical myth have a hard time honoring the good things that Jesus does because they are afraid of something about him. The same thing happens in workplaces, families, and perhaps most blatantly in American politics. As human beings, we are bound to eventually face someone who can't appreciate our accomplishments because they are too busy trying to tear us down. Hopefully, we attend to our principles well enough that we don't fall into that pattern of behavior. There's really nothing of value to be gained from tearing other people down.

When we try to tear other people down, it is a testament to our own fear. We may be afraid that other people are going to be fooled by someone, which is to say that we believe that other people are less intelligent and more gullible that we are. We may be afraid that people will ignore us and pay attention to a more impressive person -- that we will not have our emotional needs met. We may be afraid that someone is going to get more money than us, that we will suffer financially if we don't tear someone else down. All of these fears are understandable, and still these fears sabotage our own happiness more than anyone else's.

A more emotionally mature response is to live with integrity despite the attention or apparent benefit someone else receives. From the flip side, when people's fears and hostility is focused on us, the emotionally mature response is to recognize it as a symptom of their own fear. We can remain connected with people who attack us if we want, but we should be aware of our own tendencies to be provoked. We don't want our attempts to remain engaged with hostile people to wind up knocking us off our intentional, principled path. In every situation, the important place to begin is with clarity about our own deep values and clear guiding principles. From there, we can act with integrity. There are times when the best response for us may be to ignore the reactive hostility of others.

The exemplar of the story in John certainly seems to ignore any perceived threat from the Jewish leaders. He leaves Lazarus unguarded and makes a grand entrance into Jerusalem. Now, this "triumphal entry" scene happens in every gospel narrative, but it does make a lot of sense to be celebrated by the crowds once news spread that someone had been raised from the dead. We have mentioned that the authors of John probably at least knew about the other gospel narratives, since the gospel of John was the last among the biblical gospels to be written. So, perhaps the reference to Zechariah 9:9 in verse 15 is intended to correct a somewhat ridiculous assertion by the authors of Matthew.

See, the authors of Matthew were so insistent on demonstrating how Jesus was the fulfillment of scriptural prophecy that they wind up suggesting some odd things. In the version of this scene in Matthew, the authors interpret their "prophetic" text to mean that the messiah will ride two animals, and so they insist that Jesus rode two donkeys into the city. This ridiculous assertion isn't repeated in the other gospel narratives, and it's just possible that the authors of John included an uncharacteristic indication of prophecy fulfilled to correct the silliness of the triumphal entry scene of Matthew.

The discrepancy is telling, however. It becomes obvious at the very least that the authors of Matthew didn't bear witness to the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. This event isn't recorded anywhere else outside of the biblical gospel narratives, which are not independent of one another. Gospel writers often copied previously written passages without any change of detail, which means that they offer no additional support or credibility. The ludicrous scene painted in Matthew of Jesus riding two animals suggests that the authors were willing to invent details in order to match with their interpretation of prophetic scripture, and this in and of itself damages the credibility of the gospel narrative overall.

Perhaps the authors of John realized something along these lines when they included Zechariah 9:9, quoted a little more sensibly. Even if there was a historical Jesus who made a blatantly messianic entrance into Jerusalem, this kind of behavior might be a bit suspect. If the symbolism of a display is going to be interpreted as a fulfillment of prophecy, the prophecy would have to be pretty familiar to people. And if a prophecy is familiar, anyone with the ego to do so could "fulfill" at least some prophecy if they wanted to, especially if the prophecy involved something as simple as riding a donkey into the city. Was the Jesus of the gospel of John trying to demonstrate a fulfillment of prophetic predictions? Or was his action coincidentally supported by scriptural words that seemed prophetic after the fact?

Well, the process taken in Matthew demonstrates that at least some prophecy mining was taking place. The authors looked for texts that seemed to contain a messianic prediction, and they invented stories about Jesus that fulfilled those texts. If this were not the case, the gospel of Matthew wouldn't have suggested that Jesus rode into town on two animals. Even if we assume that the other gospel writers took a different approach, what is the point behind mentioning Jesus riding a donkey? If it is to show that he fulfills a messianic prophecy, one must ignore the hundreds of thousands of people who rode into town on donkeys before and after this event. If the point is that Jesus was humble, riding on a donkey instead of a more majestic mount, one must ask how well the character of Jesus was supposed to know Hebrew scripture. If he knew that riding into town on a donkey would be construed as an indicator of the messiah, how humble could he have been?

The gospel of John even subtly acknowledges that these sorts of messianic claims are problematic, and the authors suggest that the followers of Jesus didn't put all this together until after the fact. What is the difference between "remembering that these things had been written of him" and hunting down scriptural texts that seem to fit? If Jesus was an actual person, and if people had actual (fallible, inaccurate) memories of him, how much easier would it have been to find scriptural references that aligned with him than with anyone else? My guess is that once you've decided that someone was a messiah, it's not difficult to track down some supporting texts that match that person's identity and life, especially given that human beings can be very flawed in their perceptions and very creative in their memories of events.

This is one problem with "authoritative" texts. When a document is lifted up as authoritative, it becomes unquestioned. And if you can twist the words to mean what you want them to mean, you can hide behind an unquestionable text rather than having to be personally responsible for what you say and do. The only thing that can give a text authority is alignment with reality. A text doesn't become true just because we agree with it. While we can play match up between people and prophecies as much as we like, the truth is that we could find correlations between anyone's life and the ancient prophecies of some culture. As entertaining as that may be, it's a distraction from living our lives with intention and purpose.

The story actually moves on quickly to the Jesus character speaking about death and purpose. We may not agree with his metaphors, but the authors of John seem to have Jesus say essentially that a person's life is worth more after it's over. When a grain of wheat dies and is buried, it brings forth abundant fruit that would have been impossible if that grain of wheat had remained whole. Likewise, people who cling to their own life and well-being will suffer loss, while people who release their grip on life and well-being find something eternal and wonderful. Then, it is asserted once more that those who follow the example of Jesus will be rewarded.

Alright, so perhaps there is something to the whole "riding a donkey means you're humble" imagery. If the messiah of this story knows how great he is and still chooses to ride a symbolically humble animal, maybe following the example would mean that we recognize our own human frailty and weakness even as we acknowledge our own personal strengths and greatness. Sure, people were making a spectacle and calling him royalty (and he didn't tell them to stop), but he didn't take advantage of their adoration either. He received it humbly and gracefully, by the account in John. We can endeavor to do the same perhaps, balancing honest and authentic self-awareness of our strengths and power with honest and authentic self-awareness of our weaknesses and dependence on others.

What does it mean then that if we love our life we will lose it and if we hate our life we will gain it? This phrase also appears in all four gospels, although in different contexts. The authors of John seem to support the concept of eternal life, which we must take as a metaphor. The phrase, "abundant life" seems clearer and more useful. If someone "loves" life in this sense, it would seem to be equivalent with a fear for one's safety, an unhealthy longing for security and safety that becomes the priority over and above one's principles. "Hating" life would then indicate not being worried or fearful about one's safety and security, which would free one up to live with authenticity and integrity to deep guiding principles regardless of other people's reactions. When you stop being afraid of the consequences, it's easier to embody justice, equity, and compassion in your life, despite the resistance others may express. And if more people honored their principles over their own safety, perhaps it would become clear how much our deepest values coincide with one another.

This is what is must mean to emulate the Jesus of the gospel of John, to be committed to one's principles so deeply that integrity is more important than safety, which brings us to one additional possibility for the mention of riding a donkey. The donkey may be symbolic of peace. Certainly, the reference to Zechariah 9:9 makes sense with this interpretation as much as the interpretation of humility. If the presence of the donkey in the story is intended to suggest valuing peace over conflict, then we have another suggestion at what it might mean to emulate an idealized self-differentiated person of integrity. Even when we are more committed to our principles than we are to our own safety and security, this doesn't mean we should be brash and hostile to others about our beliefs and values. The value of peace might help temper our interactions, and is obviously a better frame for our relationships than fear. Our lack of fear about other people's reactions need not mean that we are unnecessarily provocative. Our part is to live intentional lives of integrity and to model gentle fearlessness.

As a postscript, I should be clear in this that there are still people in some places in the world who face very real fear for their safety on a daily basis. I'm writing from the context of United States society, in which a lot of our fear is misguided and irrational. For some, it is a much more challenging prospect to allow one's authenticity to take priority over one's safety. I'm not promoting rash, irresponsible public action. Unlike the apparent glorification of martyrdom in this passage from John, I think we have greater potential to make a difference in the world while we are living in the world. We just need to be honest about how realistic or unrealistic our fears are. If we are afraid that someone is going to put a bullet in our heads if we quietly act for justice, equity, and compassion, we should be thoughtful about how we live out our values. If we are afraid that someone is going to embarrass us or that we are going to lose a bit of popularity or even wealth if we live with integrity to our principles, it's important to put those fears in perspective.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

John 12 Celebrating and Being Celebrated

As you might imagine, the story continues that Mary and Martha (Lazarus' sisters) are overjoyed that Lazarus is back from the grave and seems to be hale and hardy rather than zombie-like and hungry for brains. This is a happy back-from-the-grave story. So, Mary takes some expensive perfume (which Jesus says she had been keeping for the day of his burial) and anoints Jesus' feet in gratitude. The version of this story in the gospel of John also has Mary wiping his feet with her hair. Judas gets angry about the wastefulness of the act, which the authors of John attribute to his greed. Jesus makes the comment that there will always be poor people and one might assist them at any time.

When this story appears in the gospel of Mark, it happens while Jesus is staying with Simon the Leper, and the woman's appearance and identity are unexplained. All of the disciples were upset, suggesting that the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor, and in addition to telling them that the poor will always be around for them to help, Jesus also remarks that the mysterious unnamed woman is preparing his body for burial. The authors of Matthew copied the gospel of Mark closely, but the gospel of Luke tells a completely different story. Here, Jesus is dining at the table of Simon, a Pharisee, and the mysterious unnamed woman (the suggestion here is that she is a habitually sinful woman, which perhaps means that she is a prostitute) enters and anoints Jesus feet with affection that must have seemed excessive to others at the table. Here, the woman dries his feet with her hair. There is nothing said about the poor or about burial; this time the story is used as a lesson about gratitude and pride.

(Incidentally, the gospel of Luke does include a story about Mary and Martha elsewhere -- without a Lazarus raising -- in which Mary sits adoringly at Jesus' feet while Martha busies herself with meal preparations. It seems rather odd that this detail would have been preserved, while the resurrection of their brother was too insignificant to retain. This sort of thing points to the gospel narratives being collections of stories assembled for a particular agenda rather than historical accounts in the way that we often think of factually accurate histories.)

Since the gospel of John was written decades after the other three canonical gospel narratives, one might wonder if the authors knew of the other written versions of this story and deliberately altered it for their own purposes. Perhaps it was commonplace to use such stories as malleable illustrations for larger truths. Some would argue that Jesus must have had his feet anointed by various women at various points in time, thus accounting for the different stories. On the one hand, the disciples should have gotten used to that behavior after awhile, but on the other hand it could have been increasingly annoying for random women to waste expensive perfume on your teacher's feet over and over again. In any case, if it was a common occurrence, we might expect at least one gospel narrative to include multiple stories about Jesus having his feet anointed. Each only includes one such instance, however, and it is conveyed as somewhat shocking behavior.

No, this is simply a story that different authors use for different purposes. This is not a historical account. Did people in the Ancient Near East anoint their bodies with perfumed oils? Yes. Some ancient tales even include warnings for living heroes descending into the land of the dead to abstain from slicking themselves up with nice smelling oils, lest they make the dead jealous. There is probably a considerable amount of symbolism in this story that is lost on modern readers, although that doesn't stop biblical commentators from suggesting any number of interpretations. Many of them seem quite content to argue back and forth about assumptions without any real evidence. That being the case, we may as well jump into the fray to find some useful insight for our own intentional lives, laying aside any assumptions about an actual event to unravel. Three distinct pieces of this seem worthy of consideration: the attitude that Mary expresses, the attitude that Judas expresses, and the attitude that Jesus expresses.

In this case, both Mary and Jesus might serve as our exemplars, while Judas obviously represents some fear-driven reactivity. Mary is obviously quite impressed with Jesus, and she's particularly grateful for the restoration of her brother's life. She was not overly concerned with propriety. We might even say she was overwhelmed with gratitude. Now she didn't do anything overtly shameful. She held to some societal boundaries. She did trample over what some individuals in the room considered the bounds of good taste. And she didn't care. She was appreciative enough that she did what she was comfortable doing to express her gratitude, and she was apparently respectful of Jesus' boundaries as well.

Just as Mary was entitled to operate within her own personal boundaries despite whether others agreed with those boundaries, Jesus was free to set his own boundaries. He could have said, "Um, Mary? I'm honored that you appreciate me so much, but I'm uncomfortable with how you're expressing it." He didn't. He recognized the act as something worth receiving with some intention. As difficult as it is for some of us to express appreciation and gratitude, it's even more difficult for some of us to graciously accept appreciation and gratitude from others. Perhaps it feels somehow vulnerable, no matter which side of unabashed appreciation we happen to be on.

For some folks, maybe it feels uncomfortable to observe effusive appreciation. The authors of John invent a reason for Judas to have reacted unfavorably to Mary's display, but we could probably come up with any number of reasons why a person might object. Some people might feel like they've been replaced as an object of affection. Or they may be jealous that someone is getting more attention than they are. Or they may feel like the appreciation is undeserved. Judas was afraid of something, and when we object to other people giving and receiving unabashed gratitude, we're afraid of something. The authors of John wrote Judas off rather quickly. We might care for ourselves better and get at the root of our fear. When we are able to deal with that, we are better able to celebrate with people who are celebrating.

Honestly, Mary's appreciation was a wasteful act. Yet, what good are the things we have if we don't use them to connect with the people around us? Gratitude isn't ever wasted. Honestly, Jesus' response was indulgent. Yet, we need to indulge a bit in affirmation. We need to allow room in our relationships for celebrating others and being celebrated by others. Gratitude, affirmation, and appreciation are not finite resources. They're not going to run out just because someone bestows a phenomenal amount on one person. Gratitude, affirmation, and appreciation are in abundant supply, as often as we care to express them.

It's important for us to anoint someone's feet once in a while, when it's a sincere act of gratitude. And it's important for us to humbly take it in when someone is appreciative enough of us that they choose to anoint our feet -- and to accept that gratitude for what it is. We long so much for human closeness, and we so often fearfully keep ourselves from it, that when we experience closeness with another person, we try to turn it into something it isn't intended to be. We might mistake genuine appreciation for a romantic invitation, or worse, we might be tempted to take advantage of someone who is expressing gratitude. The real potential for these reactions are one reason that people have such a difficult time expressing and receiving genuine appreciation -- it feels dangerous because we are so often unaccustomed to healthy human closeness.

Gratitude doesn't need to feel dangerous. It is vulnerable, to be sure. But we can choose to remain aligned with our own deep values about the inherent worth and dignity of every person and still give and receive appreciation. We can maintain the boundaries of our relationships and still celebrate others and be celebrated by them. The more we practice allowing gratitude and appreciation to be just what they are, the less dangerous they will seem. In other words, if we don't let our fears about our own worthiness get in the way, we can make it safe for others to express gratitude and appreciation toward us.

Another catch is that we can't really demand appreciation from others. When we start expecting effusive praise as standard operating procedure, not only is it less likely to be sincere, but it literally means less to us. On a certain level, we need peaks and valleys to make the terrain of our lives meaningful. We need moments of expressive gratitude and moments when we do what we do because it aligns with our principles, whether or not anyone notices or appreciates what we do.

One last piece of this story is worthy of mention. The Jesus character says that the poor will always be around. The people with whom we develop close bonds will someday be gone, but there will always be people in need. Mary had set aside that perfumed oil for Jesus. She was just using it before she had initially planned. In a sense, that nard was already his, whether he got the gift after he died or before. It's appropriate for us to be as lavish as we would like in our generosity.

At the same time, there will always be people in need. They are the more faceless characters in the story. They are mentioned, but they don't have names. They are a category, a population. As such, it's more difficult for us to feel connected to them. The poor are often a Them and not a part of Us. Perhaps there are ways that we can attend to the real physical needs of people around us who are under-served while still being unashamed in our expressions of gratitude to the people we appreciate. That might look different for each of us, depending on our locations and resources. Still, it need not be true that there will always be people in need. We can contribute to the well-being of people geographically close to us and contribute to the well-being of people who are emotionally close to us without either being compromised. Maybe learning to celebrate others and be celebrated by others without shame is one part of a bigger equation. Being generous in our gratitude and appreciation may open us to being generous in other areas as well.

Monday, March 9, 2015

John 11 Pharisees and Daleks

Another thing about the Lazarus story is the reaction of people after the miracle. Whatever metaphorical meaning we might draw from it, the legend is about a man coming back from the dead because of Jesus' miraculous power. One of the real lessons of the tale comes after that event, however.

In the story, Jesus is emotional. While there's nothing explicit about exactly why he's emotional, it's easy to assume many believable reasons. Maybe death is always a sad occasion, although that seems strange for someone who also expresses utter confidence that he can bring Lazarus back to life. Maybe he is grieved by the attitudes of people around him, people who had seen the example of his life and still don't get it. Perhaps he is disturbed in this story because others seemed to have brilliant insights into what he should have done -- armchair messiahs as it were -- but don't actually have much affirming to say about Jesus' decisions.

Even after Lazarus is back among the living, there are some people who don't like that one bit. Some folks celebrate the miracle, of course, but others run and tell the religious officials, who in turn react out of their own fear. They decide that they need to take Jesus out of the picture (which, according to the story, they had already decided awhile back, but we won't quibble with the narrative). Their reaction to a self-differentiated purposeful person who can bring people back from the dead is extermination, which makes me imagine all the Jewish leaders running around like Daleks from Dr Who shouting "Exterminate! Exterminate!"

As amusing as that image is, people are like that. When you or I decide to do something because of our own deep values, because of our own connection with our deepest, most noble self, there will be people who can only react with hostility. Their fear doesn't allow any other response.

We aren't always graceful with the choices we make, but once in a while we manage to do something extraordinary. That scares the dickens out of some people. Extraordinary or unexpected behavior seems like a threat for some reason, and instead of recognizing the value of what we are doing -- instead of finding ways to do extraordinary things in their own lives -- they focus on criticizing, dismissing, excommunicating, and even eliminating the people they see as dangerous.

Accept this for what it is: Some people aren't ready for you to be a person of radical integrity and intention. And it's alright. They don't have to be. You don't have to wait for other people to give you permission to live into a best possible version of yourself. They might be amazed at your life or inspired by what you create. They might shun you or start shouting, "Exterminate!" Either way, your choice to live intentionally with integrity to your guiding principles is not about them. It's about you. It's about living into the vision you hold of a best possible version of yourself.

As with everything else in our lives, it is up to us to choose how we will respond to people's hostility. We might back off, settle into old familiar patterns, and let the water settle. This is an understandable choice, and it's one I've personally made many times. I made preserving those relationships more important than living into the life I most wanted. It was a decision to have the external appearance of peace rather than an internal reality of peace.

From my experience, that easy option is overrated. If we are going to grow closer to a best possible version of ourselves, the reality is that we are going to outgrow some relationships. Just like we outgrew our clothes as a child. This is sad. We want the people we care about to celebrate with us, but they aren't always able to do so. Our connection with some people may change over time. The good news is that there are other relationships we can grow into. It still takes time and commitment to nurture relationships, but we can always find relationships to nurture if we are willing. The other good news is that there are people who are willing to grow with us -- perhaps even people who are models of growth to us. And the complex array of emotions that we experience is all part of the journey toward a best possible version of ourselves.

May we continue to grow into a practice of radical integrity. May we continue to invite the people around us to journey with us. And may we gracefully allow them whatever response or reaction they offer us in response, as vulnerable as that may feel to us.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

John 11 How Are We Resurrection and Life?

The story of Lazarus in the gospel of John offers a lot of potential insight. That insight doesn't depend on the story having any historical or factual truth. We could acknowledge that there are a lot of mythological resurrection stories across a wide variety of ancient cultures. And we might suggest that there are plausible scientific explanations for how the event could have actually transpired. We might also recognize that none of the other biblical narratives about Jesus even hint at what would seem to be a very significant and astounding event. None of this actually equips us any better to live our lives, however. Determining that this is a fictional story is only a starting point for deriving value from it.

At the same time, the concept of resurrection is perhaps more significant than any particular story about resurrection. Certainly many of us can point to moments of rebirth or transformation. We might even say that we have had to "die" to some influences in order to be "reborn" into a healthier way of being. Some of us are aware that other people have helped us in the process of transformation, sometimes through their support and encouragement, and sometimes through actually working in our lives to connect us to new people and opportunities that springboard us into a transformative experience. Perhaps we have done that for others in the midst of their rebirth, in the midst of a process of morning some loss and rediscovering oneself. Resurrection as a metaphor is loaded with meaning.

Thus, the story of Lazarus and the people to whom he was connected can have meaning for us if we approach it not as a story about physical death and revivification (which is not something any of us should reasonably anticipate), but rather as a symbolic story with a more universally applicable meaning. The story becomes much richer from this perspective, beginning with the response of the Jesus character to the news of Lazarus' illness.

Of course, the story has been interpreted throughout Christian history as a commentary about the supernatural knowledge and power of Jesus. Jesus seems to know the present and future circumstances of Lazarus, and has confidence in his own power to produce miraculous effects. This is all relatively useless to us. Pretending that this kind of supernatural knowledge or power is available to us or to any other person is frankly delusional. Now, if we want to acknowledge the potential of a medical professional (or a team of medical professionals) to perform "miracles," that's fine; we just need to recognize that we have crossed into the realm of natural human capability rather than supernatural prowess.

The kind of symbolic death and resurrection that we have suggested, however, might also be met with some responses like those of Jesus. When someone has experienced a loss -- or when they are in the process of "dying" to some habit or circumstance -- we might have some clarity that there can be some joy of impending transformation in the midst of mourning. We might resist the temptation to be infected by the anxiety of others and calmly respond with love in our own time. We also might choose to put ourselves in a position of vulnerability for the sake of connection with people we care about. Most of us are not going to be faced with a sect of people looking to stone us, but we still feel a sense of threat or vulnerability from time to time. It can seem safer to stay away from people who are experiencing a significant loss, and yet our own willingness to be vulnerable can contribute to transformation in the lives of others.

I'm not sure that the sequence of events is all that important, but in the gospel narrative, Jesus learns of Lazarus' struggle and the anxiety affecting his closest friends and relatives, and Jesus doesn't take on that anxiety and rush to Lazarus' side. Instead, he takes time to gather himself, to be grounded and centered, and to finish whatever tasks he had prioritized because of his own values and guiding principles. He trusted that Lazarus would emerge from his loss, and he accepted that those close to Lazarus were responsible for managing their own anxiety, whether they actually chose to do so or not. Eventually, though, Jesus' desire to be in meaningful connection with a friend prompted him to place himself in a position of vulnerability in order to care for Lazarus and others.

The followers closest to Jesus chose to follow his lead in allowing themselves to be vulnerable, even though they had to do some work managing their own anxiety. Jesus didn't demand or require his friends to accompany him. He simply told them what he would be doing, and he invited them along. It was up to the disciples to decide for themselves how they would respond to Jesus' decision. Some of them may have accompanied him out of anxiety, and others may have reached a point of calm clarity about the decision. Whatever the case, each individual's choice was his own responsibility.

The same is true in our lives. Our decisions will influence people around us, and we can be clear about what we choose to do and invite others along without being responsible for their decisions. We don't need the approval of others in order to make decisions that align with our deepest values, and we don't have to convince others that what we choose to do has integrity. Other people are responsible for what they do in response (or reaction) to our decisions, even when they seem unwilling or unable to make a responsible decision. Surely, our choices have consequences, and we may not know all of the consequences of our actions ahead of time. We may reconsider the decisions we make when new information becomes clear to us. There is no reason to judge ourselves when this happens. It's simply part of the journey.

Allowing other people to be personally responsible for managing their own anxiety and making their own decisions isn't always easy. If we take the story at face value, Jesus spends more time helping Martha process her anxiety than he does with Mary. Maybe he knew his own emotional limits and was worn down a bit by the first conversation. Maybe he knew the two women well enough that he believed he could expect more personal awareness from one than he could from the other.

The conversation with Martha turns into an assertion of Christian dogma, but that's to be expected from the author(s) of John. One might wonder, though, if there is still value in interpreting the Jesus character as an exemplar of our own best possible versions of ourselves. Could it be true that when we are living with integrity and intentionality by a clear set of guiding principles -- when we are connected with our deepest most noble selves -- we are transformative and life-giving to the people around us?
(If it needs to be restated at this point, our deepest values are not based on fear, but affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Becoming clear about these values is a long-term process of personal work, and we have delved into this in many other posts.)
This is not a question of supernatural power, of course, but a poetic framing of the natural power of intentional people. When we make decisions based on our deepest values, we create an environment in which others can do the same. When we clearly express the principles that guide our lives, we model a way for others to ground their own choices. When we exhibit calm and confident vulnerability, we influence the people around us toward managing their own anxiety a little better. It isn't our responsibility to tell other people what they should do, but it is our responsibility to be clear about why we make the decisions we make. And in sharing that clarity and those values with others, we make it more possible for them to live with greater integrity in their lives.

Moreover, when we trust in our own processes of "resurrection" -- our own journeys through mourning loss and transformation into a clearer reflection of a best possible version of ourselves -- we serve as models of resurrection to the people around us. When we live intentionally, we serve as models of life. When we are at our best, we are resurrection and life. Those who live intentionally by clear, life-affirming guiding principles will know what it means to truly live, even though they will experience loss from time to time. Joan Borysenko has written, "The question is not whether we will die, but how we will live." And it is attributed to Albie Sachs that, "Death is more universal than life; everyone dies but not everyone lives."

Our lives are not lived in isolation. We influence everyone around us. When we give control to our anxiety and fear, we influence people around us toward greater anxiety and fear. When we live intentionally with integrity to our deepest values, we influence people toward greater self-awareness and fulfillment. In any case, other people's responses or reactions are their responsibility, but the sort of influence we offer to others is our responsibility. If we choose to, we can be the resurrection and the life by which other people desperately long to be influenced. And if we are honest, there are time when we will desperately long for such influence in our lives. Best to seek out those people now and bask in their influence so that living in alignment with our principles is well-rehearsed when the time for transformation comes.