Who you are

August 18, 2008

About 150 years ago, Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard observed,
"There is nothing with which every man is so afraid as getting to know
how enormously much he is capable of doing and becoming." The biblical
texts for this Sunday all have something to do with being and becoming,
with living as you are, in who and how you are, whatever the
circumstances, and in so doing, contributing to something far greater
than yourself.

In the Exodus text,
women take center stage simply by being themselves, by acting with
integrity and by meeting the challenges of the moment with wisdom and
compassion. Times have changed for the worse: after living in the
golden glow of Joseph's successes in Egypt, "a new king arose over
Egypt who didn't know Joseph" (Exo. 1:8). The Hebrews' increasing
numbers have become a threat, so the Egyptian king not only oppresses
them with ever greater work, but also requires that the midwives kill
infant babies. These midwives are named in the story, an unusual
specification. Shiphrah and Puah may or may not themselves have been
Hebrew—the text is ambiguous. Whatever the case, they are midwives
first. They help bring babies into the world, and apparently they
aren't about to let anyone, even a king, tell them that they should do
otherwise: that bringers of life should deliver death. The narrator
explains that the midwives "feared God," something that other biblical
writers attribute to wisdom (see, e.g., Prov. 1:7; 9:10; 15:33).

Among
the babies they simply refuse to kill is the one who will save the
Hebrew people. Through him an unprecedented relationship between people
and God will be mediated. How could the baby's sister and the pharaoh's
daughter, even the mother who sent her infant down the river and saw
him returned to her breast, know these things? They couldn't. But each
of them did what was right for and in that moment. Each acted according
to her ability and her heart, no matter the pressure to conform or the
danger of contradicting the mighty and powerful. Because of them, Moses
survived.

In Romans, Paul asserts that people are different from
one another, and this is both good and necessary. When my dad worked
downtown, he often took the bus to work. Several adults with Downs
syndrome were also on their way to work. The work they did was menial,
uninteresting and dead-end by our estimation, but he said that every
morning they were cheerful, proud and delighted to participate as
employees in the community. Paul instructs members of the congregation
to be like this: to cheerfully and humbly accept the particular task or
role for which they're suited, knowing that the congregational body is
healthy only when each member serves according to his or her
disposition and gifts. Rather than blindly adopting expectations for a
certain way of being or doing, Paul counsels personal discernment by a
radical openness to God’s intentions. "Do not be conformed to this
world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you
may discern. . ." (Rom. 12:2).

The eastern sages talk about
"beginner's mind" as an ideal state of being. At this moment, the
learner is without enough experience and success to harden a sense of
what she can and cannot do, what is and isn't normal. The beginner
assumes and predicts nothing. He is open, unselfconsciously available
to novelty and every possibility. Peter is like this in the gospel
text. The other disciples answer Jesus' question “Who am I?” according
to what they have heard. By contrast, Peter speaks from the heart: "You
are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."

You can (must!) be who you are. God will take care of the rest. Who knows what extraordinary role your ordinary self will play?