There. It happened again. I'd bought a lovely set of light green sheets (on sale) several years ago and they'd been sitting in the armoire ever since. This morning I decided that their time to shine was now. I opened the package and started to put on the bottom sheet. Hold it. It was too long and too deep. No, it was labeled as the size I needed for my mattress but the size was followed by the word "long." Apparently I overlooked the word "long" when grabbing them from the shelf in the store. You did it again, I told myself. When are you going to learn to read the labels more carefully? I had read the label or I'd have gotten a king size or something instead of the size I needed, but somehow I missed that one little word that made the difference.
Labels. They've become a standard part of my life these days. As a diabetic, I have to read food labels carefully to make sure I don't get something with too much sugar or too many carbs or no nutritive value whatsoever. I'm learning to look at clothes labels a bit closer, remembering the pairs of jeans I bought that said "petite" on the hanger but which turned out to be "long" when I got them home. And then I think of people who seem to have labels attached to them and I wonder...
Everybody's got labels whether they hang them on themselves or someone does it for them. Even though we probably shouldn't, we do it anyway because it gives us a tag to say something about that person or even a whole group. They're people "like us" or people "not at all like us." They are of the wrong political persuasion, some other race, some other denomination, the list could go on probably forever. I'll admit I have my prejudices; tell me someone is one of those__________ (fill in the blank) and I'll probably give them less credence than I would someone I felt was more in my line of thinking. Should I and do I read their books? Probably not, although I have done it on more than one occasion just to try to see where they are coming from, to use the popular phrase. Sometimes I have found out that I was horribly wrong about a person or group but have felt pretty rotten about it. As a result, I learned to change my thinking on the subject. Sometimes, though, they reinforced my conception (and preconception) of whatever it was that I felt made them "one of those." Underneath it all it was all based on labels, internally or externally applied, rightly or wrongly read or understood.
One of the best/worst labels in the world is that of "Christian." Who is good and who is not depends on a person's personal theology, religious and political affiliations and sometimes even social status. It feels like Jesus and his teachings are in the center of a tug-of-war with people and institutions from both ends of the spectrum trying to pull him over to their side, even if they pull him in half to do it. Each group claims the label "Christian," but it seems that only the people nearest the middle see the actual damage being done by the tug-of-war and aspersion-casting. Some of those would take the rope, put Jesus in the center and then hold the rope in a circle with Jesus on the inside, everybody else on the outside. Some would put Jesus in the center and surround him with people facing outward, holding the rope between them and everybody else. Then there are those who put Jesus in the center and then sit around him, throwing the rope aside as unneeded and unwanted. I think those could wear the label of "Christian" very well. The others? Well, maybe they're Christians too, just not the same. Their label is a bit more tattered or maybe I just see it that way.
Jesus quite often looked past labels and spoke/healed those who were outside the circle that an observant Jewish man would normally avoid. He also put labels on people like the Pharisees. Why would that be okay for him but not for anyone else -- like us? The thought disturbs me. I'm sure someone would argue that Jesus was the Son of God and could see the hearts of those around him whereas anyone else has to go on intuition or observation, but does that really work? It gets me back to the old argument about whether Jesus was really fully human, fully divine or a mixture of both. Sure, he could do a lot of things ordinary people couldn't, even miraculous things, but he could be what we would call rude too -- like when he intimated that the Syrophoenician woman was like a dog to lick up the crumbs under the table where others were allowed to eat. Was that his human side coming out? Granted, he went ahead and did what she asked of him in a characteristically human way of changing his mind. Then I remember that even God changed God's mind on a couple of occasions, even showing remorse. So can God use labels and we can't?
When it comes down to it, perhaps I need to have my glasses prescription changed, or perhaps I need to change my way of scanning labels. Perhaps a second or third or tenth reading might be in order to ensure I have all the information and that I did read it correctly without skipping words -- or adding words. And maybe I need to ask myself why is this label on this thing, person or group, who put it there and for what reason? Then it should be easier to determine whether or not there's any veracity to the label or whether it should be consigned to the dumpster or maybe just aired out or laundered.
As for the sheets, a simple tucking of more than the usual amount of sheet under the mattress solved the problem of the length and width. They will probably pull loose from time to time as I turn over in bed, but hey, it might remind me of the value of labels read correctly for things where size or the like really matters. As for labels for people, that is a whole different story.
Originally published at Daily Episcopalian
on Episcopal Cafè Monday, July 15, 2013.