When you’ve spent your entire life asking the world for permission to exist, it can be rather unnerving when it repeatedly answers back with a resounding “no.”
Growing up, I enjoyed a rather typical existence for a middle class white dude from the burbs (emotionally vacant and generally absent father included at no extra cost).
This, of course, keeps in mind a time long before people began taking out second mortgages in order to send their kids to segregated, sorry, I meant “Christian,” schools in parts of town closer to the good mall.
So please give my gritty public school existence — featuring only, like, eight AP courses and no salad bar — the weight it so rightly deserves.
During my early days, I began to notice a quiet hierarchy guiding most of my community’s appropriation and understanding of existence, in that there are some among us who are here on purpose. These folks were the expected, the planned for, the cherished, the prayed over, the cried about and the cheered on as they took their first messy beats and breaths on this giant spinning ball of gas and college football playoff scenarios.
They’re the Varsity,
the A team,
Maybe you know them as the ones whose teeth and shoes and accents and tans and test scores belie the fact that they’ve always had season tickets and a seat at the table. And whose existences invite those of us who weren’t and aren’t quite so lucky to ask what went wrong in the cosmic machinery to produce so many other, let’s say, more questionable, cuts of meat expiring in the “manager’s special” bin of humanity?
By “questionable” I mean those whose arrival likely elicited a few tears, but probably not ones of joy. Or whose birth ended relationships rather than cementing them.
Or who entered the world alone, without the fanfare of multi-hued “CONGRATULATIONS” banners and cigars and back slaps and weak-kneed relief.
They’re the JV,
the B team,
They’re the ones whose teeth and shoes and accents and tans and test scores belie the fact that they’ve always slept on a couch or a sleeping bag in the front room of their dad’s rental. And whose very existences invite those of us who were and are so lucky as to be driven to school with lunch money and parent-reviewed-homework to ask why we’re always forced to slow down for these folks?
Or, as Judge Smails from Caddyshack reminds those of us within earshot of his woeful short game:
The world needs ditch diggers too, Danny.
From inception, citizens of our great land are invited to become intimately familiar with where they might fit in the “meritocracy” of American life, and to then assume the expected behaviors, relationships, faiths and lives associated with his or her place in the world. In the pocket of our nation I call home, the religious expression of people from my particularly middle-class-Caucasian rung on the ladder is to refer to oneself (especially in mixed company, preferably with a “THESE ARE MY CHURCH CLOTHES” t-shirt) as a Christian. And with that self-identification, one should understand both implicitly and explicitly that the decisions emanating outward from that place are not only wholly acceptable in the eyes of God, but again, are the expression of his or her divine right to exist.
God has chosen us for such a time as this,
or something along those tired lines.
Permission is never something about which these folks must inquire, because, as they’re often told, God knows the number of hairs on their heads and the dollar amount their starter homes are worth, so by all means live boldly and don’t settle for the early bid.
In the second chapter of the book of Mark, we encounter a brief story outlining Jesus’ interactions with a fella named Levi:
“Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphas siting at the tax collector’s booth. ‘Follow me,’ Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him. While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him.
When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ On hearing this, Jesus said to them, ’It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’”
For much of my life I’ve heard this tale used to justify a great number of things:
from high school smoke pits at $700 a week Younglife camps, to theology and beer night at the cool church plant, and even to Evangelical concert protesting sign holders handing out bulletins to confused Parrotheads simply trying to drink enough in the parking lot to actually enjoy two hours of Jimmy Buffet’s music.
Personally, I don’t find these interpretations to be an altogether helpful rubric for navigating Jesus’ invitation to Levi and his rather seedy dinner guests, namely because they — from either side of the spectrum — still understand the world to be comprised of an inescapable hierarchy of worth. One carving the universe up into camps of sinners, saints and cubs fans, and in so doing, utilizes the actions of Jesus as a baptism of all the ways we already categorize people and their places in the world.
Jesus, a card carrying member of the A team, spending time with the JV,
how incredibly scandalous?!
“Oh Mr. Beauregard, I DO declare!”
However, what if — instead of implicitly affirming the sacredness of our inherited worldviews — Jesus’ actions were performed in an effort to save not just the sick or the sinners or the powerless or the profane, but all of us parading under the auspices of our own worth, chosen-ness or lack-thereof? Because all of us — both sinner and saint — need to ask a different question of the universe. One that, rather than meekly inquiring about our permission to exist, instead asks how and where we are to continue existing, as we take the preeminence of our breath and bones to be a rather firm “yes” to the first question.
The invitation greeting Levi doesn’t begin with a discussion about what he does for a living, who he sleeps with or how he spends the hours of 9-11 a.m. on Sundays, it is instead a simple offer to pour out the gift of who he is on the altar of the world’s need.
Which would quite naturally lead to a night spent with friends over a meal and a decent bottle of wine.
When understood in this manner, the way of Jesus is a quiet reminder to everyone and everything filling our world that the most foundational truth of our lives is that we already possess within us — despite from where or from whom we came — all the permission we need for existence.
We are, all of us, already chosen.
Occasionally, we might simply need someone to remind us of the good news of who we are.
Personally, I’ve found the most tuned-in among us never ask for nor demand permission because they’re too busy reminding others they run across of all the ways their existence is exceedingly integral (and interconnected) to the ongoing redemption of a world desperate to discover a “yes, of course” where it once heard only “no” or “maybe one day, with enough effort.”
whether you’re black
or, god forbid, even a Parrothead
the invitation of the orthodox Christian faith isn’t to open your heart and dinner table to Jesus in order to be told your life is now finally worth something. It’s to share a meal and a conversation with people you care for (and even some you don’t) in order to remind them (and you) that you always have and always will matter independent of all those consenting to or rejecting your right to do so.
I mean, why else would you be made of so much of the stuff in the first place?
matter, that is.