On becoming fully human

Last week I invited you to name the one essential thing you’re living for. What is your single, compelling purpose in life, the one that guides your large and small choices every day? Can you state your answer in one short sentence?

It wouldn’t be fair to ask that question of you if I weren’t able to answer it myself. My one essential thing is to live in authentic relationship with God, with others, and with all of creation. Though I sometimes fail to give it the attention it deserves, it still guides my living. Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche communities, says the same thing, I believe, but says it differently. He says basically that the one essential thing in life is to become fully human, to become fully the persons God is creating us to be.

It sounds like something Jesus would say, who emptied and humbled himself so he could become fully human (Phil. 2:5-8). And in doing that, he gave us the model of Christian discipleship. So, how do we become fully human? Here are three thing that, if we were to do them diligently and faithfully, would help us grow into our full humanity, into authentic relationship with God, with others, and with all of creation.

First, we need to know, respect, and honor our heart and what’s in it. Jeremiah first described the new relationship God was to establish with us. “I will put my law within them,” he heard God say, “and I will write it on their hearts . . . .” (Jer. 31:31-34).

God has planted in our hearts the principles that govern our relationships in creation, the process by which we become fully human, and those principles are in our hearts our whole life long. But they become crusted over with layers of family socialization, cultural and political indoctrination, and unexamined personal experience. So we forget they are in us.

“Be at peace with your own soul,” St. Isaac the Syrian advised; “then heaven and earth will be at peace with you. Enter eagerly into the treasure house that is within you, and so you will see the things that are in heaven; for there is but one single entry to them both. The ladder that leads to the kingdom is hidden within your soul. Flee from sin, dive into yourself, and in your soul you will discover the stairs by which to ascend.” Do what you can, however you can, to discover and draw out of your heart the life principles that will make you the fully human creature God is creating you to be.

Second, listen for God in the inconsistencies, contradictions, and conflicts of life. “Do I contradict myself,” Walt Whitman asked? / “Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” (“Song of Myself”). God’s creativity in each of us is diverse beyond our imagination. And in Christ we find, among all that diversity, a holy integrity.

There’s also an integrity in everything around us, everything we label “light” or “dark,” “good” or “bad.” “I am the Lord,” God said, “and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things” (Isa. 45:5-7). And in Christ all these things hold together in perfect integrity (Col. 1:17), even things that seem at odds with each other.

Two sisters were arguing, each of them wanting the last orange, neither of them wanting to let the other have it. So their mother intervened, cut the orange in half, and gave half to each girl. One sister peeled her half, threw the rind in the trash, and ate the pulp; the other peeled her half, threw the pulp in the trash, and grated the rind to use for zesting a cake. If they had seen past their conflict, each might have had all she wanted. And if we can see past the inconsistencies, contradictions, and conflicts of life, we may find all God wants for us, the integrity of all creation, the fullness of our humanity.

Finally, if we want to become fully human, we need to love the other person, every one of them. We need to trust that the other person has an essential role to play in God’s unfolding creation, even if – especially if – we have no idea what that role may be. We need to trust that without the other person, our own lives would be essentially diminished. And we need to act toward each person accordingly.

Love the other person by being present with holy respect; free yourself of your distractions, preconceptions, and prejudices. Building or preserving walls of separation is antithetical to the reconciling gospel of Christ; tearing down walls and building bridges of connection is a living embodiment of the gospel.

Love the other person by being attentive and listening. Parker Palmer has defined listening as lowering your screens of expectation and prejudice to let something not yourself in on its own terms. (It’s also a good definition of prayer.) Honor in the other person the place where God has left an imprint, where God has written the law of life to be read by those who are present and attentive to it.

And love the other person by responding fully and freely to the God whose active presence you find there. Like two properly tuned violin strings, when placed side by side, will resonate to the same note with each other, allow yourself to respond freely and naturally to the song of God being sung in the life of the other.

We can do some of these things alone; indeed, we must do some of them alone, at least in the beginning. But like the African proverb says, “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” If we are to become all we can be, if we are to become fully human, we need to be nurtured by others who, while often unfaithful, preserve the habits that are necessary to learn the story of God.

“I must be on my way,” Jesus said, “because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside Jerusalem” (Luke 13:33). Or to paraphrase it so we can better catch his meaning, “I must go the distance because it would be so unfitting, so sad, for one who carries a message from God to reach the end of life without having reached the center of what life is about.”

A little boy who fell out of bed was being comforted by his mother, and she asked him how the accident happened. “Well,” he said, “I guess I just lay down too close to where I got in.” How often it is that what keeps us from living fully for our one essential thing is that we lie down and get comfortable too close to where we begin. We believe in becoming fully human and profess our faith in the one who can help us get there, Jesus the Christ. But we stop short; we take on the name “disciple” but don’t go to Jerusalem; we content ourselves that he took up his cross, but we won’t take up our own. Resolve now to go the distance with those who share the journey with you, and don’t let anything come between you and your one essential thing.

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