Guest commentary by Carlton Johnson
Do we really understand what it means to live in bodies of earthen vessels? Even after decades of research, witness, I remain amazed at how some continue to assign value on the bodies of others – based on skin color, gender, nationality and other qualifiers.
When this happens, the group doing the judging fails to appropriately grasp the notorious failure record of all of what the writer of 2 Corinthians 4:7 calls “these earthen vessels.” The Book of Common Prayer recognizes this at every funeral: “Earth to earth; ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Neither is greater than the other. Each has the same origin. Each has the same destination.
I am reminded of a few stories that helped me better understand what our earthen-ness means.
The first story recalls a sewer issue that impacted a church where I was formerly executive pastor. A few months after my arrival and after a terrible storm, I went downstairs to the fellowship hall and found myself ankle-deep in water and raw sewage. Yes, eeewww!
The culprit? Terra cotta, or “earthen,” pipes buried underground several decades earlier. The pipes had naturally decayed over time. The initial repair estimate: $90,000!
While repairing these pipes, the director of a local hospice facility arranged for a group of teens to visit and to meet with patients. She encouraged them to ask their most probing questions. One particularly shy 14-year-old asked the panel of patients, “How does it feel to live knowing that you’re dying?” A 29-year-old terminal cancer patient reached forward and responded with a smile, “Sweetheart, how does it feel to live believing that you’re not?” The woman who could have easily been the teen’s older sister recalled how she had been famously wasteful with her life, not realizing the treasures she carried within her. She cautioned her now-adopted baby sister to remain conscious of her own perishability, the very earthen-ness of her own vessel.
Recent research suggests that all of us have microscopic cancers growing inside of us. Our immune systems defend against constant invaders; yet, if just one of the 50 trillion cells that are continuously dividing to keep us healthy makes a mistake or “mutates,” our temples begin to lean dangerously. Though awesomely designed, our bodies are fragile. Life is fragile.
The syndicated daily comic strip “B.C.” summarized this nicely in a post in which one pre-historic character asked another, “What is the #1 cause of death?” He replied, “Birth.”
Another story entails a decade in which I lived in a state of constant fear. My father had been diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1991 and, though caught early, within three years he was gone. Though regular prostate exams are not normally recommended until at least age 40, I began checking as often as twice each year at 30. Suddenly, a friend died in the World Trade Center attacks of September 11, 2001 – exactly one week after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. With that, I shifted gears. Though good care of my external shell remains important, my internal treasures have gained preeminence.
Since my father’s death, medicine has advanced dramatically. Death following an early prostate cancer diagnosis is rare. In December of this year, a live human head is scheduled to be put in a coma, frozen, severed and transplanted onto the torso of another healthier body. Yet, with all of its advances, modern medicine cannot puff the breath of life into our bodies nor call us to heavenly reward. God does that.
The same God fills us with the capacity for the ancient Kemetic Principles of Ma’at – ancient Egyptian concepts of truth, balance, order, harmony, law, morality and justice. In the life of Jesus, we are shown how to share these treasures. Others are not to be judged or prejudiced according to our standards for their earthen vessels, but cherished for the treasures within them.
I am valuable. So are you. Take care of your vessel. Take better care of its contents.
CARLTON JOHNSON is the operations officer for Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta. He also serves as president of the Atlanta chapter of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.