Monday, October 31, 2016

Our Best Selves

Tissot's Zacchaeus
In the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus meets Zacchaeus, a tax collector, and, in the eyes of the first century Jews, a scoundrel.  Yet Jesus wants to stay at the house of Zacchaeus.  His Jericho neighbors are shocked:  Doesn't Jesus know Zacchaeus works for the enemy, the Romans, and makes his money off fellow Jews.

But the call of Jesus was a transformative moment for Zacchaeus.  From now on, he will be generous with what he has and his dealings with other people.

We too can transform people into their best selves.  A contemporary example is Dr. Karl Menninger, a 20th century internationally renowned psychiatrist. He was asked to visit a widow who had been depressed since her husband's death years before.  Menninger noticed the beautiful violets she grew. So he wrote an unusual prescription:  The widow was to read her local newspaper every day and send a violet to someone who experienced a significant life event: the birth of a baby, marriage, graduation, a death in the family.

Within a month, the widow called Menninger and said her life had changed dramatically.  Every time she sent a violet, the receiver responded.  The widow became known as the “violet lady,” and began to live her life happily with new friends.

Christ calls us to recognize our gifts and abilities and use them to bring joy and peace and hope and forgiveness and consolation to others.  Nelson Mandela said it clearly in his inaugural address as President of South Africa: “We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us.  It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone.”

Jesus challenges us to take stock of our lives, to examine our conscience about our priorities, what really matters.  But what is conscience?  It is closely associated with our feelings, and yet conscience is more than our feelings.  Conscience, an informed conscience, is our “moral compass,” an almost instinctive judgment about our behavior and attitudes.

The 10 Commandments are a good start for examining our conscience about how we relate to God, ourselves, other people, and things, so that we can realize our authentic self-hood. The commandments are really statements about freedom from attitudes and behaviors that undermine these relationships.

The commandments say very simply that our God is a God of love; and our response to God’s unconditional love is, first and foremost, gratitude to God for who we are and what we have. We acknowledge this gratitude in worship. Moreover, this planet, and the people on it, reflect the image of God.  So all creation is worthy of reverence.  God our Creator calls us creatures into relationship with Himself and that's why we give ourselves to God in Sunday liturgies and in return receive God.

This same God challenges us to support virtues: for example, caring for aging parents; cherishing life from beginning to end; being faithful to our promises; speaking the truth; respecting the rights of others, not exploiting people; and being generous.

 As psychologist Paul Gilbert, founder of compassion-focused therapy, observed,
“You are writing a Gospel,
A chapter each day,
By deeds that you do,
By words that you say.”

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