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Nurturing Elders:
Walls Hide Our Real Identities
By the Rev. Paul Graves

“We learned that to come to fulfillment of life it takes absolutely nothing at all
– beyond the development of the best in ourselves.

— Joan Chittister, The Gift of Years, p. 71

INSIGHTS_NuturingElders_paulI happen to think that Joan Chittister is on to something. But how do we develop the best in ourselves?

One way is to take the Incarnation of God (Jesus, folks!) more seriously than as a cuddly baby in a straw manger on an artificially-set birthday in December. Christmas would become my favorite holy-day again if we could really embrace the Incarnation rather than the holiday!

On my first trip to Israel in early 1992, I visited with the Israeli man across the plane’s aisle as we descended into Tel Aviv. I asked him a pointed question: What will it take for Israelis and Palestinians to seriously work for peace? His answer came in two words: NO WALLS!

I recently thought of that conversation as I was preparing this column about Identity Theft. No, make that “Mistaken Identity”. Or, maybe “Identity Confusion.” Well, whatever you choose to call it, there’s a good chance you experience it as you’re shaped by an imperfect Christian Tradition.

I grieve over the walls built by the double-messages most of our churches offer to their participants about their true identities as “children of God.” I’m sure the effort by most local churches and their participants are not intended to build walls of identity confusion. But too often they do!

Our message is conflicted. I think it has mostly to do with our deeply conditioned, often contradictory understandings of who God is. That confuses what we think of when proclaiming we are “children of God”, made in God’s likeness and image.

Are we children of a God who we believe acts only in terms of “either/or” and “black-and-white”, and is quick to exclude those not “like us”?

Or might we be children of a God who we see open up the entire universe to our wondering minds and hearts? Does God rejoice with us at the coo of a baby, and also embraces us as we speak and act for justice for all people, not just those “like us”?

I don’t pretend to speak for you in this matter. But I do puzzle over the conflicting message when our Christian liturgies and music – historic and current-day — so persistently emphasize our utter depravity, yet sneak in ways to say God loves us as children of God. I get religious whip-lash!

It can also cause some Identity Confusion. Am I a child of God, loved unconditionally – especially when I honestly show my propensity for being an imperfect human?

Or is my relationship with God really based on following the unhealthier religious rules set down by our historic faith and molded by our religious culture’s fears? Sometimes, we need to be bold enough to question those religious practices we follow in and out of the church building to discover if the God we are following really is the God Jesus proclaimed in the Gospels.

Jesus is the full Incarnation of God. His entire ministry was devoted to tearing down the walls between God and humanity. He offered himself as the “model of humanity” that God intends all persons to be. He came not to make people religious, but more authentically human!

We can discover the “best in ourselves”, ala Joan Chittister, when we look more deeply into the courageous humanity that Jesus shows throughout the Gospels. But more than that – we see that “best” as we experience a no-walls, unconditionally loving relationship with God.

The Rev. Paul Graves serves as the chair of the Conference Council on Older Adult Ministries.

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