The other week during the school vacation, I got to take a road trip with my 16 year old John.
If you ever get to take a road trip with a teenager, do that. Because the world is a beautiful place, and it’s so fun to travel around with someone who hasn’t seen as much of it yet. And teenagers are often learning to drive, and if teaching a teenager to drive is five parts terrifying, then it’s also like 10 parts great because you’re watching them do it, and they’re actually listening to you. Like really listening, hanging on every word you say listening, and you talk but you also just sit there, and this person is actually driving you around for a change. And then there’s something about all the conversation you have when for hours, there are no distractions and there’s nowhere else to go.
Anyway, it was a great time.
But as I said, John is 16, and he is our youngest. Grace and I had three kids kind of fast, and even though that seems like yesterday, now they are 16, 18, and 20, and they are all starting to find their way in the world.
In the case of John, we were road tripping because we were looking at a few colleges that he might consider applying to.
Now when you are sending your kid out into the world, a lot of weird things happen to you. I mean, part of me is pumped, like: get going, kids. Leave home. I believe in them. I’m excited to see what choices they make and all the ways they’ll make us proud and make themselves proud. And now and then, I have thought, hey, we’re going to have more space soon where we live, and more time, and more freedom. And sometimes that seems pretty great. Get going, kids. You can do it. But then of course, sometimes that letting go is terrifying. And I felt a little bit of all of that on this trip. Get going, John. But also, stay here, don’t go!
This time isn’t just a weird time for a parent, though. It’s a weird time to be a teenager too, isn’t it?
I mean, the world has always been telling our teens: go out into the world, it’s time for you to grow up, while also telling them: it’s scary out there, watch out, be careful! And man, have we said that to our teens a lot in recent years, telling them: you can’t go to school, it’s shut down. Actually, you can’t go anywhere. And we wonder that they seem stressed out these days.
And then for our kids that go on to higher education, the messages the colleges give them are a little weird too. We got this college brochure and in big letters on the front, it just said:
It’s all about you.
It’s all about you.
I think this was supposed to be encouraging, exciting. Like it’s your time to make choices. It’s your time to live how you want, study what you want, pursue your dreams.
“It’s all about you.”
It’s supposed to sound liberating, I guess, but I think it’s not.
“It’s all about you” sounds an awful lot like you’re on your own – no path to follow, no principles to guide you, no one walking alongside, no one having your back.
“It’s all about you” sounds like a lot of pressure. It’s your time to accomplish, your time to earn, your time to figure out how to stand on your own.
Be independent. Be successful. Be happy. It’s a lot. I think there’s another way.
This past week, we began our six week season of Lent remembering we are earth. We are mortal, flawed, vulnerable. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
But in the middle of that, we were invited to read a bit of Isaiah 52 as well, where we are told:
Awake, awake, shake the dust off yourself and rise up.
And I asked:
Is there a word of liberation that you need to hear from God today?
As we move into our second week of Lent, continuing to explore how we are earth, members of the fabric of this beautiful creation, I think I have a word of liberation from us.
It comes from a passage in the second week of our guide, day nine. It’s a Hebrew word: hineni, and the message I have for us is:
I am because you are. I am not alone. I am not all about me. I have roots and source. I am connected.
I am because you are.
Let’s read the passage from Day nine, it’s the beginning of the 6th chapter of the prophet Isaiah.
Isaiah 6:1-8 (Common English Bible)
6 In the year of King Uzziah’s death, I saw the Lord sitting on a high and exalted throne, the edges of his robe filling the temple.
2 Winged creatures were stationed around him. Each had six wings: with two they veiled their faces, with two their feet, and with two they flew about.
3 They shouted to each other, saying:
“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of heavenly forces!
All the earth is filled with God’s glory!”
4 The doorframe shook at the sound of their shouting, and the house was filled with smoke.
5 I said, “Mourn for me; I’m ruined! I’m a man with unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips. Yet I’ve seen the king, the Lord of heavenly forces!”
6 Then one of the winged creatures flew to me, holding a glowing coal that he had taken from the altar with tongs.
7 He touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips. Your guilt has departed, and your sin is removed.”
8 Then I heard the Lord’s voice saying, “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?”
I said, “I’m here; send me.”
When I first learned this passage, I didn’t think about Isaiah or anything to do with the ancient Near East. I thought about myself. It’s all about me.
Here am I, Lord.
Am I the one?
How are you calling me?
How will I be sent?
What job will I have?
Where should I live?
Who should I live with?
What role will I play in the world?
Fair questions, maybe, but it felt like a lot of pressure.
Now in Isaiah, this passage is about the calling of this prophet to really just do one thing with his life: to tell the truth. Before that, though, he has a vision of God’s presence in the Jerusalem temple. This beautiful presence of God is made visible to Isaiah’s imagination for a moment, and then he realizes it’s not just the temple, but the whole earth is God’s temple.
God is everywhere, and God is so good, so beautiful, so holy. All the earth is filled with God’s glory.
And once God helps Isaiah move past his fear, his response to God is a single Hebrew word: hineni. Which means Here I am. I’m available. What would you like, God?
It’s a passage of calling for Isaiah, of the launching of his life work for his community.
But I heard this passage as a young adult the way I heard everything, filtered through our society’s assumptions about individualism.
After all, our society is a product of the modern age where we were told that what it means to be a person is to be an individual.
You stand on your own or you fall.
What does it mean to be a person? It means to be a thinker, to use your own brain. “I think, therefore I am” is the slogan of modernity.
And so for me, to find my way in the world was to be independent, a solitary doer and thinker, and my religious sense reinforced this. I stand alone before God, who has a call on my life I need to figure out, so I can get it done.
When I thought I had it right, it took me to a prideful place, a too big place. One time, when I was in my early 20s, one of my brothers told me:
You know, getting more religious has seemed like it’s made you more full of yourself, like you have the answer to everything.
Mostly, I was defensive when I heard that. No way, that can’t be true. (It was, though, and some part of me winced because I knew that).
Honestly, though, the bigger thing I felt in my spiritualized “it’s all about me” was isolation and pressure. It took me to a too small place. It’s all on me to be a competent, capable adult. And it’s all on me to figure out God’s will for my life and do it, and do it well.
That was a dead end, lonely, pressurized place to be.
One of my mentors from a far, Randy Woodley, names this as a disease of the modern Western world. Randy is an indigenous elder and wisdom teacher, a scholar and theologian, and a follower of Jesus too. He’ll preach to us via video next week, and his voice is part of our Lenten guide Ivy and I put together as well.
individualism as a way of life, as a worldview, is dead. It hasn’t worked for us. Thinking we’re on our own in the world, and being out for me and mine has brought so much harm to the earth. And even if we spiritualize that into doing what we personally think is God’s world without really humbly learning what will serve the flourishing of the greater whole, well that’s got to go too. It’s a diseased way of being.
Instead, Randy says he and his wife Edith, they are seeking to decolonize and indigenize the Western world.
Decolonize the Western world – help us let go of our highly individualistic economic and religious ways of being? And indigenize the Western world – learn from the wisdom of the first peoples of the lands where we dwell. And learn from our own, more humble, more earth-connected, more communal indigenous roots, wherever we each come from.
With Randy, and with the scriptures, and with the wisdom of our indigenous ancestors in mind, I ask:
Is there another way to grow up? Besides
“It’s all about you.”
Is there another way to understand who we are in the world? Besides
“I think therefore I am.”
Is there another way to live our faith? Besides
“My call, my pressure, my way.”
Well, there is. And part of that way, I believe, is Isaiah’s response to the glory of God’s presence, filling the temple of creation.
“Hineni” is Isaiah’s response to God. It means
“Here I am.”
I’m with you, I’m available. “Hineni” is said by other people in the scriptures too. In fact, in the Jewish tradition, it’s what you say to God.
Liturgically, at the most important holidays, it’s the start of a prayer: where one says to God.
Here I am – a vulnerable, flawed person – but here I am before you God, praying for this earth – not alone, but with creation – and praying for your help – not alone, but with you God as well.
Here I am, part of the whole.
Or as I’ve heard it put it by the philosopher Aaron Simmons:
I am because you are.
I don’t exist because of myself. It’s not all about me.
I am because my parents gave me birth and life. Mom and Dad, I am because you are.
I am because my ancestors stayed alive and passed on that gift to me. The Elliott peoples of Scotland and Nova Scotia, the Bellottes of France and Germany and South Carolina, the Johnsons of Sweden, I am because you are.
I speak today not because I somehow figured out language but because of everyone I heard speak, who talked to me and in front of me, who read me books and sang me songs. My relatives and babysitters, and Sesame Street and the whole world of PBS Kids, I am because you are.
This is true for all of us, and it is the wisdom of the indigenous peoples of the earth. The South African Zulu word related to this is: ubuntu. I am because I’m part of a whole. I am because we are. I am because you are.
The First peoples of this land were right clear on this too. I am not over the earth, above the earth, I am part of the earth, a member of the human and non-human community of nature, gifted with life because of our Creator.
Divine mother and father, and all of this glorious creation, I am because you are.
Friends, this ubuntu, hineni connected way of being is what our teenage selves, and our teenage children and friends and fellow citizens need more of right now.
That road trip with my son, the best part of it was not showing him the colleges where he can enroll as a student and develop his mind, his skills, his vocational and financial path in life.
No, the best part of the trip was opening up space to think about the future in a connected, relational way of being.
We spent hours driving and walking and talking together, by each other’s side like 10, 15, 20 hours a day. Life when my kid was a newborn baby, rarely alone, always accompanied. We can’t physically keep living this way all the time as we grow up, but in an experience like this, we taste it again for a minute and that grounds us.
And in this trip our best times, the highest impact items were with other people. Our favorite school: the one where the tour guide made a connection with us, spoke a word of promise and hope over my kid’s life. Some of the most meaningful moments: meeting up with family friends and with old friends from my kids’ school, where we talked together about their lives and ours, and how none of us finds our way forward by ourselves.
I am because we are.
I am because you are.
Think about it with me.
I am because you are.
Who gave you life? Who brought you into this world? Who taught you or encouraged you or took care of you when you were a kid? What ancestors kept the spark of your DNA alive?
We are because they are.
This is what the humility that people of this earth are called to is all about, not self-debasement, but belonging, owning our small but important part in the broader whole.
In our daily lives, the homes we live in, the infrastructure we use, the earth that grows the food we eat, the wells and the reservoirs that supply our water, as Barack Obama and our Cambridge neighbor Elizabeth Warren have reminded us:
We didn’t build this.
This church building that we worship in and those of us online get our broadcast from: we didn’t build this. One of our members, Mark DeJon, who lives in the neighborhood, his wife’s great-grandfather was one of the immigrant brick laborers who built this place a hundred years ago. He built this, not us.
We inherit our gifts, we steward them, we co-create new things in our lives. But we don’t start any of it. We are because they were. I am because you are.
Humility and gratitude, the humility and gratitude to which God’s people are called, in all things.
When we remember we are not alone in this world, and the pressure is not all on us, we can look around and say: thank you.
I can eat my dinner and say thank you, God, for the land from which this food came, thank you for animals and vegetables that gave their life for me, thank you for the hundreds in the long chain of people that got this food to my plate, thank you, thank you, thank you.
I can walk in Hudson River valley as I did last week, walk the Catskills where my parents honeymooned fifty-five years ago, walk along the cliffs of the Palisades where my grandfather hiked as a young man 95 years ago, walk the little patch of woods I take my dog to in Boston that were stewarded by this land’s first peoples five hundred, one thousand years ago, and say thank you.
Ancestors of my life, ancestors of this land, I am because you are.
And creator God, from which all life and all gifts flow, I am because you are.
And even in our life missions, in the places to which we are sent, in the work we come to do, hinenichanges the vibe for us. It’s not all about me. It’s not about my success or failure. It’s not about pressure.
All of you all, and our teens and young adults in particular, the living God does not care whether you succeed or fail at what you’re doing.
Don’t get me wrong, God cares about your feelings. God wants you to not feel like a failure. But God’s not worried about your success or your failure.
Whether you’re a middle or high school or college or graduate student, whether you’re in a new job, or you’re a new parent, or in a new marriage, or learning a new skill, God is not worried about how well you do.
Isaiah perceives the glory of God all around him, filling this earth like a temple, and he’s like:
oh, no I’m not good enough.
Me, my whole people, we are a disgrace. And God’s like, let me change that. That whole hot, glowing coal to the mouth moment of purification – God didn’t need that, Isaiah did.
So it is with the sacrifice of the cross, and the wine of communion that speaks of the blood of Christ, shed for us.
God didn’t need that. We did. We need to taste and see that God gives all of Godself to us all, and that we are accepted, forgiven, loved as God’s children.
God’s not worried about our success or failure. God wants us to show up humble, grateful, open, curious to our lives. To not be gripped anymore in fear, but to be able to stand up and say “Here I am” and to show up with our whole messy selves, saying I’m here. I am because you are. And I’m ready.
We are not alone.
It is not all about us.
We didn’t make this. We didn’t build this. And it does not all ride on us.
We are, our God, because you are.
Our very existence is a response to a higher call.
We will show up to our lives, to this earth, to your call, with all we are – and succeed, fail, win, lose, it doesn’t matter.