I've spent the last couple weeks thinking back over this year. There were a lot of great things that happened, but it was also a really tough year. It was hard in a communal, political sense. But it was also a hard year for me personally, and I know it was for a lot of you as well. As we approach the holidays, it can begin to feel even more difficult sometimes.
We all tend to have different things that help us process, and one of the most helpful things for me is usually to write. I had been experiencing a bit of a creative block, so I recently started trying to be more deliberate about writing, and I like Christmas, so I decided I’d try to write a Christmas song. I was having the hardest time putting anything on a page until I started this stream of consciousness list of all the things I’m afraid of, and it was like a dam got unblocked. I was able to write, which was really freeing, but that initial Christmas song just ended up being a morbid song about fear and death. “Everyone’s gonna die” is literally one of the lyrics. But it felt strangely liberating and comforting to write it too, and since then, I’ve been able to write a lot of other stuff.
There’s something funny about being creative and making art. In order to do it, you kind of have to be honest with yourself. There’s obviously some shallow or dishonest art out there, but in my experience, I can’t make art unless I’m facing whatever it is I’ve been running from. And something I realized in just these last few weeks is that it actually takes more of my energy to evade and repress my fears than to just face them. I spend way more energy distracting myself with work, food, activity and late night tv than the work it takes to be present and process what’s going on. Even though I know this, it’s still really hard. It’s really, really hard. And as I was trying to figure out why it’s so difficult, I was also interacting with this section of Paul’s letter in Corinthians. Something clicked as I was reading it, and my whole perspective began to shift. It’s in chapter 9 of 1 Corinthians, and Paul is talking about how we perceive our “rights.”
Paul makes a really strange, 2 part argument.
The whole first part is trying to convince the wealthy and influential members of the Corinthian church that he has the right to their financial support. This usually took the form of a system called patronage, where wealthier, influential members of society supported itinerant teachers and philosophers, of which Paul was one. So he launches this long argument of why he has the right to their money, but the second part of the argument he spends telling them that there’s no way in hell he’d ever take their money even if they offered it in the first place!
It sounds like the kind of thing debate kids in school used to do all the time: argue a point just for the sake of winning, not because they actually want anything to change. Those kids were really annoying. But Paul bases his whole reason for arguing this way on what he calls the Gospel. His stated reason for why he’s not going to take advantage of his rights is because he doesn’t want anything to get in the way of the Gospel. And what is the Gospel?
We are accepted and loved by God not because we earned it, but because Jesus earned it in our place. In other words, we have a right to God’s acceptance and love, but it’s a right that we didn’t earn - it was given to us.
POSSESSION & PRIVILEGE
So the Gospel actually gives us another way to perceive our “rights.” One way is to view them as earned, which in turn leads us to view our rights as our possession; we think in terms of ownership. And that means, every time our rights are questioned or threatened, we react out of fear. We try to protect, keep, fight, and hold onto our rights. When we perceive our rights as something we earned and own, fear will never be far behind.
But the second way we can view our rights is as given. If they are given freely as a gift, we no longer regard them as our possession, but as a privilege. And this dramatically alters how we live and think: instead of feeling fear, we feel gratitude. Because it was never ours, it is easier to let go of willingly. Our attention is not so much on the right itself, but on our relation to the one who gave us the right in the first place. It’s like the difference between being someone’s family member and someone’s employee. The problem in Corinth though was that the culture was so transactional, especially within this system of patronage, that rights weren’t perceived as something given freely - they were something that you earned. A wealthy member of society earned their good standing and acceptance in the community by supporting these itinerant teachers and philosophers. In return, these traveling teachers earned their good standing by speaking well of their benefactors.
So you can see how problematic accepting financial support would’ve been for Paul and this message of the Gospel. He didn’t have any problems accepting patronage in other cities, but here, it was a problem.
Thinking through this lens, I realized that much of the source of my fears and unhappiness and trouble being present comes from me still perceiving my rights in the first sense. I’m trying desperately to hold onto something that I’m treating as my own possession. I’m still constantly trying to earn acceptance from the work that I do. No wonder it’s so hard for me to be present - as long as I’m trying to hold and possess and control something, I’m going to be scared all the time of losing it.
When we look at Paul though, he seems so free. When he’s with the legalistic, militant religious types, he doesn’t fly off the handle and get super defensive. When he’s with the super liberal, everything-goes type of people, he doesn’t seem to feel threatened or uncomfortable. Even though he’s poor and probably needs their money, he’s not claiming it.
I think the only way that we can live like this is to have an alternate, greater source of security.
When I get parking tickets, I instantly freak out and feel worried, because I can’t afford to spend money all the time on parking tickets. When Paul Allen gets a parking ticket, he probably doesn’t give it a second thought. He is so secure in his income, that he doesn’t need to waste anytime worrying about a parking ticket. I really resent that about Paul Allen, but I wish I was in his position.
The Gospel message is that our rights extend beyond anything we could ever earn ourselves. Jesus has taken our position, and given us his. Jesus has conquered death and we share in that. Even the statement, “we’re all gonna die” doesn’t carry the bite that it used to. We are accepted and loved by the Creator of the universe not because we earned it, but because Jesus earned it for us and gave it to us freely. To the degree that we are able to trust we have that kind of security, those kinds of privileges and rights, we’ll begin to start finding the footing we need to be honest and present with ourselves. It’s still really really hard. It’s still gonna be something we spend the rest of our lives learning and walking through. But it’s real and it’s waiting for us. It gives us new ways to look at our fears: whereas before our fears held power over us, in light of the Gospel, they begin to start looking less and less convincing, and increasingly frail and weak.