Sunday, October 23, 2011

On finding the "Imago Dei" in us...

There’s always that longing of preserving one’s best experience and it’s so true with how I felt on my return here in Vallejo. How I wished that I could have stayed longer where I’ve been a couple of weeks ago. I was part of a group that gathered at the YMCA of the Rockies, in Estes Park, Colorado. 

Here’s how that played out.

Early that week, several groups under the Ethnic Missioners of The Episcopal Church met with their respective constituencies. The group I was a part of was the gathering of the Episcopal Asiamerica Ministry Council (EAM Council) — their Executive Committee and Conveners and delegates to their Strategic Planning Conference.

For several years now, I have been the Co- Convener of the EAM Filipino Convocation and at the Council’s annual meeting the following day I was unanimously elected as the new EAM Council President. Well, I thought that was kind of an honorable thing to have but in reality, it’s another “hat” I’ll be wearing, at least for the ensuing year; one that would entail additional travels. The downside, of course, is that there’ll be more work-related absences from my parish but the good side is that it won’t have any financial impact either.

From that EAM meeting early in the week, the EAM contingent, as did the other ethnic groups, transitioned to the main gathering, which was called “Everyone Everywhere Mission Conference” and as the theme suggests, the participants were men and women of all shades and colors; people from everywhere; from different dioceses of The Episcopal Church, including representatives from partner churches in Asia and South America. It was, indeed, a departure from the church’s usual monolithic gathering.

It might have been the case that that gathering was among the exceptions! It was an Episcopal gathering that was truly diverse; living out its slogan as a “welcoming” church. It was good to see, for example, some of the “Lost Boys of Sudan” breaking bread with everyone gathered in the Lord’s Table and to see folks from Venezuela and the Dominican Republic and Ghana and Haiti and the Philippines; well, you get the picture.

Something sad, however, began to unfold on the last day of the conference. It’s over and as I boarded the bus back to Denver, my leaving of that beautiful place with beautiful people made me long for a similar gathering in the future where “everyone from everywhere” could continue to find Jesus in their midst; seeing or better yet, wanting to see the “Imago Dei”, the Image of God, in the unlikely faces and places we find ourselves in.

And that wish, by the way, that wish of being able to see the Image of God in others need not remain to be just mine. Come to think of it, it should be our wish; all of us, and to make that a reality, we need to intentionally engage in the task of identifying and looking for the “Image of God” in us.

Our gospel for this 19th Sunday after Pentecost (Matthew 22:34-46) has something to say in that regard, although, it doesn’t appear as clear and simple as one would like to think. But let me work on that connection between our task of seeing the ‘Image of God’ and what today’s Gospel has to say on that regard.

Our gospel lesson tells us that a Pharisee, one of those religious leaders during the time of Jesus who were pretty well versed with the Priestly and Levitical laws, came to test Jesus, presumably in his knowledge on the subject.

He goes on to say: "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?"  Jesus then replied: "`You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: `You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." 

What or where, you might ask, does it say about “Imago Dei”? Well, as I earlier said, it does not “clearly” talk about the image of God. But here’s what I’ve found as I read and re-read the passage. Jesus tells the Pharisee that the greatest and first of all the commandments is to love God with all your heart, soul and mind. And then, the second great commandment is “to love your neighbor as yourself”. Jesus is telling us that we should love our neighbor or the ones other than us, in a manner similar to how we regard ourselves.

And that brings us to the question of how do we regard ourselves. If you start telling me your answers, we won’t be on the same page, I’m sure. If you look more closely, there are two main camps and some in between.

On the one hand, there are those who have a rather low if not totally negative regard of themselves. They are the ones whose refrain in their song in life might go like “I’m not good enough” and this gets repeated again and again in their journeys in life.

They’re the ones who, when asked if they would be willing to volunteer at their child’s school community project would readily say: “Oh, I’m sorry. I don’t think I’m good enough for that one. Go ask someone else.” Or when asked if they would consider being a Vestry member in their parish would say: “Me? Oh no. I don’t think I’m good enough.” And they end up not responding to the invitation mainly because they don’t have enough confidence in themselves.

It’s also the case that this low esteem could get contagious. For all you know, there’s a whole bunch of those “I’m not good enough” folks gathered right by your side; in the family circle, in the community circle and in your faith community.

Talking about faith community, we should know by now that Christianity has always wrestled with the issue that many in various faith communities see themselves as God’s creatures – and not just as God’s creatures, but as imperfect, flawed beings, who, at times, are quite capable of serious acts of disobedience and self-centeredness. It appears that quite a number of our Christian brothers and sisters choose to focus heavily on their unworthiness and sinfulness.  They argue that God, after all, is supremely good and we are nearly the opposite of that.  It’s no wonder many really emote with the words “wretch like me” when singing the hymn “Amazing Grace”.

And so, when an appeal comes to them to help out; whether in some local projects or some relief appeal for major natural calamities, their response is “My donation is not good enough; my $25 is not good enough. That’ll not go far.” And they end up not giving anything. Why? Because their would-be small contributions, they think, won’t make any difference; all because they think of themselves as “not good enough”!

Love your neighbor as yourself, Jesus said. But you won’t because you’re not good enough to yourself and you can’t give what you don’t have. Loving your neighbor as yourself, when “yourself” is filled with negativity and low esteem will not take off. That mandate to love one’s neighbor may be doable but not if you do not have that positive regard on you.

Then there’s the other camp; those who have the highest regard of themselves. They are the ones who are “full of it”; the ones who only care about what they can get; what they can receive and what they can have. They’re the ones who will give; if certain conditions are met; if they get publicly acknowledged; if their names will appear on the Honor Roll; if their gifts will mean their family’s great legacy for ages to come.

Whereas the former camp would re-echo their being “I’m not good enough for you”, the ones in this other group are thrilled to float around their mantra “You’re not good enough for me.”

Love your neighbor as yourself, Jesus said. You can’t possibly follow this second great commandment if “you’re full of it”. Simply put, loving our neighbors may be doable but only if your attitude to others is not based on pride and greed or on self-idolatry. To love your neighbor when you have the highest regard for your self and one which is self-serving will only mean not loving the other but loving your very own self.

There is, however, good news. There’s a third camp where you might want to align yourself. There is an alternate and quite scriptural understanding of who we are in relation to our God. At the heart of the Christian understanding of who we are is the idea about the “Imago Dei”, the “Image of God” which is confirmed upon us and embodied within us since Creation.  God may have made us “out of nothing”, ex nihilo, but the Great Creator didn’t create us to “reflect nothing”.  Rather, God created us in such a way that we, in ways we can’t readily fathom, are able to reflect God himself. In the image of God, Man was created to reflect that goodness of heart that made God say, you are my people for whom I will send my only begotten Son.

This means that each of us has a certain dignity, a certain value and worth that can never be diminished or taken away; no matter what we do or don’t do.  This dignity we each have is the foundation for much of what the Church teaches, particularly when it comes to issues relating to the value of human life. 

And this “Imago Dei” is more than just a “mark” upon us.  It also speaks of possibilities, which means that we have a tremendous capacity for good, a God-given ability to be channels of God’s grace in all that we say and do. In other words, aware of the “Imago Dei” deep within us, we should refrain from falling into the temptation of claiming, “I am not good enough for you” nor are we to boast, “You are not good enough for me.” Instead, we are to recognize that the other, the one we regard as our neighbor, is the same child of God as we are and that we all have that innate goodness in us and a tremendous capacity for good – not because of anything we have done, but because God loves us and wants to share his very life and goodness with us.

And therefore, when we are asked to love our neighbors as ourselves, we are in a very real sense being asked to see that same divine spark in them, to see God’s image, and to see their inherent dignity and worth.  Granting that we allow God’s grace to flow in us and on to others, good works are almost a certain consequence.  However, if we fail to recognize our own dignity and the goodness that lies at the heart of who we are, we may not be able to share that same goodness with others and consequently, we will not be able to follow the second great commandment of loving our neighbors as ourselves.

I know that certain predicaments in life often lead us to get oblivious of the better side of things; even of life. In the same token, too much of self-assurance often make us go off tangent in matters of faith. We need not remain in those camps, previously cited. Instead, we need to relocate to that third alternative.  And when we do, each time we hear someone says, “ I am not good enough.” we could retort and say, “Yes, you are. We all are good enough!“  

All of us have the “Imago Dei” in us and we need to recognize that within us. Once that begins to happen, we will then be on our way not only on loving God with all our heart, mind and soul but also on loving our neighbors as ourselves.

So go and find that in you, if you haven't yet.

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