A reflection on the readings for Easter 5: Acts 8:26-40; 1 John 7:7-21; John 15:1-8
The other day I had a conversation with someone about their childhood and whether or not faith was an active part of it. This person shared stories of growing up in a church with a progressive priest who took the confirmation class to Detroit to participate in the civil rights marches in the 1960’s. It was the first time this person had been in a crowd of black people, and, as an adolescent, the experience made a life-long impression on her. She was in Grant Park in Chicago during the Democratic Convention of 1968, another transformational experience. Racial and gender issues have defined her life. Deeply invested in the causes for equality for all people, she said that living a life of privilege pushed her to become of aware of and re-evaluate her assumptions. As a person of privilege she had to unlearn assumptions about the economy and its impact on poverty, race, and gender. She has had to unlearn assumptions about education, employment, family, marriage, and even faith.
I had another conversation with someone very different, a person who grew up without the assumptions of privilege that come from being part of the dominant culture of our society, who did not have the benefits of being white and upper middle class. The ancestors of this person walked the Trail of Tears from Mississippi to Oklahoma.This person grew up on a reservation but the stories he told were not stories of despair or poverty, which is my impression of life on a reservation. Rather he spoke of importance of family and community. He said that what Native people want today is not a return of their ancient land or other forms of material reconciliation. What Native people want is the opportunity to be who they are, to retain their identity and culture, their values and beliefs and spiritual traditions. This person comes from a long line of people who practiced Christianity and Native spirituality from which he learned to understand the value of unity in diversity; that justice for one segment of society deepens the potential for justice for all people.
Our reading from the Acts of the Apostles this morning highlights these themes of privilege, race and gender and the breaking down of our assumptions. The Eunuch is wealthy and educated, riding in the queen’s chariot and reading scripture. The Holy Spirit tells Philip to go to the Eunuch, and Philip does without hesitation. Which is really amazing - because the Ethiopian Eunuch, by virtue of his race and gender, breaks the purity laws of Moses and pushed every assumption Philip had about life. Based on what he learned as a person of faith, Philip should walk by this Eunuch, keeping a good distance between them. Instead, the Holy Spirit directs Philip to do something he would have found quite radical, and he did it. Not only did Philip speak to the Eunuch, but he baptized him, breaking old religious barriers into new paradigms of the community of faith.
The Holy Spirit is an equal opportunity lover of souls who does not recognize divisions of class, race, or gender, imposed by humans in the name of God and religion.
Over the last year Maryjane, the Vestry, and I have studied and discussed Murray Bowen’s Family Systems Theory. The theory focuses on understanding how the underlying emotional processes of an individual is connected to the way one’s family managed anxiety. Patterns of emotional process which become anxious result in a need to either pull people together and find comfort in all being alike, or they pull people apart and ease the anxiety by distancing or cutting individuals off from others.
Unfortunately trying to ease anxiety by either too much togetherness or by distancing or cutting off, does not ultimately end the anxiety because it just rears its head in other ways and other relationships. Family Systems Theory strives to help people become aware of the emotional patterns learned from one’s family of origin and to work toward a more neutral emotional place regarding those emotional patterns. One may acquire a more neutral emotional stance by becoming clear about who one is; learning to manage one’s emotions and anxiety while staying in relationship with others. Managing one’s anxiety means that when somethings arouses a knee jerk reaction in me I am able to be aware of it and maintain a more neutral emotional stance. So for example I am not managing my anxiety when my elderly senile old dog looses bladder control in the house and I impulsively yell at her and herd her outside. This tends to cause even more loss of bladder control and I end up feeling like a fool because I’ve yelled at my old dog who can’t help herself. Then, if I were really feeling anxious and reactive I would yell at my husband or son for not letting the dog out, as if it’s their fault she is old and senile and sometimes can’t recognize her own bladder sensations. Emotional reactivity and blaming others for my anxiety are key symptoms of family emotional processes. One could also blame others, withdraw, hold it all inside, distance or cut off from others. The solution, which in my better days I manage, is to let her outside frequently enough that we avoid accidents. And recognize that when it does happen it's because I have been too distracted by my own life to pay attention to the needs of my dog. I take responsibility for myself rather than blaming others.
This is what we are hearing in the reading from the Gospel - pruning ourselves of all that keeps us from being in authentic relationship with God, with ourselves, and with others. In particular pruning ourselves of our reactivity to anxiety, which limits our ability to think creatively and respond with wisdom and maturity. Pruning in order to grow more mature as Christians and as human beings. Pruning out the assumptions we have learned and opening the way for new, deeper understandings of who we really are as beloved people made in God’s image. Each and every one of us, regardless of color, race, economic class, gender, or age, is equally beloved and made in God’s image.
The point of this is to remind us that the primary value we are asked to live by is love. God is clear about what this love means. It is not an emotion or a feeling; rather God’s love is a verb, it’s an action. We manifest God’s love when love others as God loves us: when we take responsibility for our emotions and actions first instead of blaming others, when we consider our own anxiety and work to navigate it in mature ways, when we break down the walls of our own unseeing, when we work to unlearn our assumptions about life, self, and others. We love as God loves when we love ourselves and others authentically, for who they really are; another human being made in God’s image.
Our readings today remind us that the Holy Spirit is an equal opportunity lover of souls and the fruit we are called to bear is to do likewise, loving others as God loves us.