This is the text from a sermon I delivered on August 21, 2016 to members of my home church, Zion United Methodist Church, where I was baptized and confirmed. The collage above is of my church and I’m standing with my two former pastors, the Rev. Jennifer Bailey (who confirmed me) and Pastor Rodney Fightmaster, who blessed me before moving away in 2007.
We all know the fabled adage from our childhood: “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” But to the child who has been bullied, the couple whose marriage is falling apart, the friend whose trust has been betrayed, words can and do hurt. In fact, words can cause lasting damage. A person may never fully heal from the wounds inflicted by some words spoken or shouted at them in the course of their lifetime, no matter how many years may pass.
It’s true, words can be destructive, but they can also lift us up when we are down, inspire us when we need that little boost to realize our full potential, heal us when we are broken, comfort us when we are lonely, sad, or afraid, and even make us laugh or smile, when we least expect them to. Words and the emotions they elicit are powerful.
Today’s reading from the Old Testament comes from the book of Jeremiah, a book that bears the name of one of Israel’s major prophets. The prophets served a vital purpose for their time. Prophets were called to be God’s literal mouthpiece, to nip at the heels of power by reminding Israel’s often fallen and wayward kings that God’s authority – not theirs – is everlasting and supreme, and to speak unpopular and even abrasive words to their fellow Israelites in order to inspire them to turn away from idolatry and other sinful behaviors.
We know that Jeremiah prophesied for approximately 45 years, beginning in the thirteenth year of King Josiah’s reign, around 627 BCE, and ending four years into the Babylonian Exile (a period of immense political suffering and persecution that stretched for nearly 70 years) around 582 BCE. In today’s reading, God says to Jeremiah that the mission of his prophecy will be “[t]o uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.” As with the other prophets like Isaiah, Jonah, Micah, and Zephaniah (to name a few of my personal favorites), Jeremiah was called by God to be a “divine agitator,” to beckon his people to turn away from sin and to embrace a renewed life of holiness founded on God’s covenant.
At the heart of God’s covenant was and is love. My sisters and brothers, if we know anything at all about God is it quite simply that God is love. At the heart of God’s promise to Abraham to make God’s descendants as numerous as the stars was love. God’s assurance to Noah to never again destroy creation was sealed in the sky with a rainbow, serving as a reminder to us that God’s love is always enduring and never failing. It was a blazing fire of passionate love that consumed the burning bush, which called out to Moses to set God’s beloved people free from Pharaoh’s oppressive rule in Egypt. Love parted the bitter waters of the Red Sea so the Israelites could walk to freedom on dry ground. Love rained down as manna from the heavens, which nourished God’s people while they wandered through the desert for forty miserable years. Love led the Israelites to the Promised Land as a pillar of clouds by day and a pillar of fire by night. It is with love that God says to each and every one of us today, just as God said to Jeremiah, “[b]efore I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” And it is love that liberates us from a life of sin and death if only, by grace, we bow at the foot of the cross, surrender our hearts and our minds and say “yes” to Jesus’ promise of eternal life.
Church, let us never forget what lies at the core of our faith: God’s love, which is available to all, sets us free! Where there is God, there is freedom for everyone; justice reins, mercy and compassion are unending, and grace is everywhere healing, renewing, transforming, perfecting, and sanctifying! In God, there is no fear, no hate, no division, no loneliness. God is always on the line, if only we take the time to listen to that still, soft whisper that wants to have an ever-closer relationship with each and every one of us. And being in relationship with God, learning from Jesus, and following the direction of the Holy Spirit changes us.
In his book The Evidence for God, Paul Moser, a philosopher of religion and former professor of mine who teaches at Loyola University Chicago, states that human beings – those of us here gathered today at Zion Church – that we are the greatest proof for God’s existence. Imagine this for a moment. God is a morally perfect being worthy of worship. Jesus, the fullest revelation of what it means to be both human and divine, shows us a unique way of living in the world. And when we follow Jesus’ teaching by loving our enemies and those who persecute us, turning the other cheek, practicing humility, and following all the other really countercultural teachings that are hard and often irrational to do, we begin to attain what our beloved father of the Methodist movement, John Wesley, called “Christian Perfection.” It’s the idea that even though we will never be perfect as Jesus Christ is perfect, we should not cease trying.
And when we do good deeds for want of nothing, Paul Moser states that we become the very evidence for God’s existence. In other words, God uses us, brothers and sisters, to make God’s presence known and felt by the world! And that means that God is on the line calling each and everyone one of us to lead an extraordinary life in ordinary ways.
Pastor Rod, a man of God who I admire so much and who has done a fine job shepherding this church for over a decade now, has told me that this church has been blessed with a spiritual awakening and a call to discipleship. Awakening and discipleship: this is what church is supposed to be! A church is not a building, open only for but a few hours on Sundays. We are missing the point if we think that what happens here on Sunday is what makes us a church. What makes this church is you, the people. And we will be known as a church by what we say, what we do, and how we treat everyone we encounter outside these walls every day of the week. It was the people in this church who nurtured my calling to ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church at a young age. The support and blessing I received as a youth from people like Corky and Bob Tarr, Pat Reincke, Ruth and Bud Weber, Robyn Hughes, Sandy and Ron Henkel, Elnora and Norville Humphrey, Dick and Nadine Kitz, Martha Seymour, Marty Kraus, Charlie Caudill, Patty Prowse, Ruth Holt, and so many others made a lasting impact on my life. The seed was planted here at Zion Church and it has been growing ever since. And I ask for your continued prayers and support as I begin this journey to ordination.
How we live our lives begins with the words we speak to others. Words that affirm or words that deny. Words that lift up lives or words that tear them down. Words that destroy injustice or words that perpetuate hate. Remember what God said to Jeremiah about the power of words: words can uproot, tear down, destroy, overthrow, build, and plant. The people we choose to be, how we act in the world, and how we treat others puts God on the line every single day. How we love and live outside these walls will have a lasting impact on people’s understanding of God, this church, and religion altogether.
Far too often, churches have been consumed with fear, have atrophied for lack of spiritual imagination, and been restricted by adherence to a rigid moral legalism that constricts the vital, beating pulse of the Holy Spirit. In today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke, we see, once again, that the Pharisees are rigid, moral legalists to their own detriment. They accuse Jesus of breaking a law that banned Jews from working on the Sabbath, when he heals a woman. In their narrow imagination, they see Jesus’ act of healing to be a violation of the law because he is technically working on a day of rest and worship. But Jesus snaps at these Pharisees and calls them hypocrites, stating that even they mindlessly break the law when they give water to hydrate their animals on the Sabbath. The lesson here is that we must extend radical hospitality, compassion, mercy, and love to those we may not agree with, to those who may not look, sound, smell, or act like us, that we must open our hearts, minds, and doors and be bold enough to do the right thing, even if it pushes us to our limit and makes us uncomfortable in the process.
Jesus gives us a new morality: it is better the break the law and even be wrong, but be motivated by love … than to follow the law and be right, but be motivated by fear. With an awakened spiritual imagination, mercy, compassion, and love triumph over fear and no law can stand in the way of God’s love. This is perhaps best-illustrated three chapters earlier in the Parable of the Good Samaritan. We should not hold adherence to an earthly law in higher esteem than fulfilling our duties to the most supreme law of them all: to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, and soul, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Now, of course, this is easier said than done.
For many years, even when I was faithfully worshiping in these pews here at Zion Church, I’ve had the ambitious goal to read the entire Bible from beginning to end. And it was a deeply pious Southern Baptist woman from the mountains of East Tennessee who gave me this goal at very early age. Every summer, as I would make my annual pilgrimage with my Momma to her hometown of Kingsport, Tennessee, the first place we would often visit would be my great Aunt Janie-bell and her sister, Eloise’s, house. And as soon as we got to their home, I’d walk past her bedroom and marvel at her well-worn King James Version Bible, which was always open on her bedside table.
Jane Mitchell may not have the expensive education I’ve been blessed to receive, but she knows more about God’s Word than I’ll ever know. This woman has such respect for the scriptures that she reads them every day. As a kid, I so deeply admired her for having read the Bible by herself and I decided this year would be the year I’d do it, too. So, I made but one New Year’s resolution this year: read the Holy Bible from beginning to end in 2016. And, friends, what a journey it has been; my faith has been renewed and strengthened.
But reading the Bible can be intimidating and, as much as I hate to say it, there are some rough patches that are pretty boring. And it can get discouraging and frustrating. Which is why I recommend the “One Year Bible,” a Bible that is broken down into 365 daily readings. As long as you can set aside 15 minutes each day and keep up with the daily readings, you can get through the entire Bible in one year’s time. Now, 15 minutes a day is not a big commitment for yourself or for God, but I’ve found that if you don’t get in a routine and do it at a set time each day, the business of life kicks in and before you know it, the day is over. The best time for me to read the Bible is on my daily morning commute into the office on the DC subway.
If you ever find yourselves in our nation’s capitol, there is something you should know. The subway is no fun place to be. It’s overcrowded, underfunded, downright dirty, in major need of repair, frustratingly slow, hot and humid, and always-delayed. And there is something else you should know, an unspoken but very important rule: when riding the escalators in the subway stations, you always stand on the right side of the escalator so those who are in a rush or just don’t like piling up on the slow-moving escalators can hustle down the left side.
I’m not making an excuse for any impatience on my part, but my daily commute from my apartment in Washington to my office in Arlington, VA takes a total of 45 minutes over the duration of 14 different stops including a transfer from a green or yellow line train to a blue, orange, or silver line train … all to travel just a measly five miles across the Potomac River into Virginia! Combine this intense commute with an overcrowded, underfunded, downright dirty, in major need of repair, frustratingly slow, hot and humid, and always-delayed subway experience and, well, you’ve got yourselves a powder keg of extreme frustration that’s liable to explode with even the slightest prompting.
Like most big cities, it’s a dog eat dog world on DC public transportation, with people always in a rush to catch their train and having little to no patience for anything that gets in their way or slows them down. So maybe you can imagine my own frustration one day as I was transferring from a green line train to a blue line train at L’Enfant Plaza (one of the busiest metro stations in DC). I was already a sweaty hot mess and probably running behind because the train I just got off of was running a little late, so it was very important that I make this transfer in as little time as possible.
And just as I began my descent on the escalator to catch the blue line train on the lower platform, I heard the unmistakable rumble of a train that was fast approaching the platform beneath me. As I began to pick up the pace so I could be sure to catch the next train, all of the sudden, the escalator traffic I was descending with ground to an unexpected halt and there I was, standing on a slow moving escalator, watching my train pull up to the platform, the doors of the train open … and then close … and then, go figure, the train sped away from the platform just as I was getting off the escalator.
I swiftly identified the culprit, a middle-aged woman, and called out to her from behind, “Excuse me!” Surprised that someone was speaking to her, she turned around and looked at me. I wonder what she was expecting I might say to her, but instead of saying something nice and friendly, I said to her in a very frustrated tone of voice, “You’re supposed to stand on the right and walk on the left… and because of you, I just missed my train!” She shook her head and looked at me with sadness in her eyes and said, “Gee, thanks a lot.”
And less than one minute later, another train was approaching my side of the platform to take me to my destination. I was relieved to be whisked away from that woman into anonymity, but also embarrassed because not even a minute had passed between the train I missed and the train I had boarded. In the long run, her breaking the “stand right, walk left” rule had not really impacted my commute into work at all.
I cannot say definitively the impact my words had on this woman. Maybe she was a tourist, and our brief encounter left her with a bitter taste in her mouth by how she was treated by cold city people like me. But what if just an hour before, she had learned that a loved one had died, or she had just gotten news of a diagnosis, or a pet was sick, or she had been hurt by a friend. And what if my words only served to further break down her spirit.
What made matters even worse, I was holding my “One Year Bible” in my hand as I said those words to her. I was in the middle of reading my daily scripture while on my morning commute. What a bad representation I was for Jesus Christ and for God’s love at that moment. It’s an experience I’ll never forget, a lesson I learned that I share with all of you so we can hold each other accountable on this journey of love and “Christian Perfection” were are on.
Zion Church, God is on the line, every single day because of the words we choose to speak to others and the actions that follow them. And God is on the line calling us to be proof of God’s existence, calling us to live our lives in love. We are called to speak words that give life and words that give love. Our actions will bring people closer to God or they will drive people away. The words preached from the pulpit and how we act as a church – including the words we speak to others – have implications that will last a lifetime. Lives are literally on the line. Jesus calls us out of a narrow, legalistic mindset and to let love, mercy, and compassion have the final word.
We are called to be the light of God’s love shining throughout our world. Even in the midst of darkness, may our lives be lived in such a way that radiates the brilliance of God’s love. Ever changing from glory to glory, mirrored here may our lives tell God’s story. Jesus, light of the world, shine upon us. Set us free by the Truth you now bring us. Shine, Jesus, shine! Fill this land with the Father’s glory. Blaze, Spirit, blaze. Set our hearts on fire. Flow, river, flow. Flood the nations with grace and mercy. Send forth your word, Lord, and let there be light!
And thanks be to God for that light! Amen.
Seeing the Word is a program of guided reflection that makes it possible to pray with images from The Saint John’s Bible, the first handwritten and illuminated Bible commissioned by a Benedictine Abbey in over 500 years.
Thank you to my friend Rachel Gabelman of Saint John’s University School of Theology for the invitation to participate in this program and offer a week of Lenten reflections on the parable of the prodigal son. These reflections originally appeared on Seeing the Word’s blog.
Day 1: Reading of Scripture
Click here to listen to me read the scripture.
Day 2: Listen
We can easily relate to the two brothers in this story. We understand the impatience of the younger brother who asks for his father’s inheritance upfront, his giving into temptation, his inability to be a good steward of his resources, and the shortsightedness that ultimately leads to his demise. The life he has chosen for himself, which may have seemed a dream come true to him at first, leaves him quite literally hungry and unsatisfied.
Then there is the older brother, who is responsible, practices an exceptional work ethic, follows the rules, and respects his father. Yet, because of this, he develops a complex that causes him to think he is better than others, at least better than his younger brother. He finds it unfathomable that his father would celebrate the return of his younger brother, who squandered his inheritance, when he has been so diligent and responsible all along.
Indeed, there are moments when we can see and hear ourselves in the very human and real laments and frustrations that both these brothers give a voice to in this parable. How do you find yourself reacting to and identifying with each brother?
Day 3: Meditate
It is no mistake that this parable is read during Lent. Like many of the stories we see depicted in this illumination, this is a story about resurrection and renewal, about death and coming back to life. The younger brother thinks he has it all, but when he loses all that he has, he is humbled. What is more humbling than being willing to eat the food that pigs eat and yet not being offered any? To be sure, he is also embarrassed and ashamed at the thought of having to share the news with his father that he lost his inheritance and is now incapable of supporting himself as an adult. But he goes back to his father anyway, because that is all he knows to do. He begs for his father’s mercy. He pleads for compassion. And what awaits him is an unexpected, surprising celebration.
Like the father, God is always waiting for us, ready and willing to accept us with open arms. No matter how badly or how often we fall, no matter how much of our talents we waste, no matter the extent to which the life we seek leaves us hungry and unsatisfied, God is always ready to rejoice with us when we return. Like the father, who tells the servants to quickly bring out the best robe for the youngest son, God promises to clothe us with God’s grace.
Day 4: See
In the same diagonal panel in which we see the image of the father reaching out to embrace the son, we also see two gold bars—the Twin Towers. Suddenly, we realize that we cannot divorce our modern reality from this Gospel message. In this illumination, we are confronted with the truth that following Christ does not only mean we are daughters and sons of the abundantly merciful Father. It also means that we are called to do the difficult work of forgiveness. We are called to interpersonal, intergenerational, interracial, and intercommunal forgiveness.
It is not easy to be like the father in the parable. And certainly not every situation calls us to express our regard for others with a physical welcome and embrace. Some relationships cannot be reconciled because they are too abusive and exploitative. But forgiveness is still essential and it is work we can do with God’s grace. These difficult scenarios call for a different kind of openness—one of our hearts rather than our arms. With open hearts we let the offenses of these relationships go, loosening their control in our lives. Rather than keeping our bitterness, resentments, and anger locked away in hearts, we implore that the Holy Spirit guide us to release them appropriately. In doing so, we experience more freedom. By the grace of God, we are then able to live more fully the life to which God calls us in a healthy, safe, and meaningful way.
Day 5: Pray
O God, our world needs more love, mercy, and compassion. Soften our hearts, renew our minds, open our eyes, and allow us to be transformed by the workings of your grace. Free us from the compulsion of jealousy, help us to value the goodness in others, teach us the way of prudence, and lead us along the path of humility. Thank you for always being there for us. Your unearned, unconditional love is always there ready and waiting to be received. Lasting joy is union with you. Amen.
Day 6: Contemplate
It is often hard to accept another person’s generosity toward us. It is also often hard for us to see someone, besides ourselves, be the recipient of another person’s generosity, when we ourselves did not benefit from that act of kindness. Jealousy and pride go hand in hand. Engrained in our American spirit of rugged individualism is this idea that fierce independence is a measure of strength. But when we value not needing anyone’s help, we also resist when others are helped. This is a vicious cycle that Jesus beckons us out of by offering us the parable of the prodigal son. It is not about taking advantage of generosity by plundering everything we have been given like the younger brother because we know a bail out is on the horizon. Nor is it about striving for perfection in everything we do such that we become haughty like the older brother. Instead, this is a story about the magnificence of God’s love, which lies at the heart of the miracle of our personal, daily resurrections and social transformations. This story calls us, like the two brothers, to contemplate continuous conversion in the face of God’s magnanimous love.
Day 7: Become Christ-like
Jesus summons us to be open: open-minded, open to ourselves, open to daily renewal, open to others, open to transformation, and open to love. In Luke 15:1-3, we see that Jesus tells the parable of the lost son as a way to expand the minds of the Pharisees and scribes, who started to grumble about Jesus’ association with sinners. In doing so, Christ reveals the tender nature of God, who extends a generous welcome to all. Like Jesus, we are called to proclaim this message of good news with joy to the entire world: God’s love is free and available to all! The hope-filled promise of eternal life, which overcame suffering and death on the cross through Jesus Christ, becomes real and transformative in our lives when we love without conditions.
“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” – John 1:5
Here in Washington, the days leading up to Christmas have been wet, gloomy, and grey. And just earlier this week, we commemorated the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year. In the midst of this great season of Advent, a season of joy and light, this confluence of natural events has offered me the much-needed impetus to pause and take some time to reflect on the darkness in my own life and in the world in which we live.
We have a lot to be sad about this season. We have much to be weary of. There are a multitude of reasons to despair. And yet, in the midst of all the pain, brokenness, trauma, and sorrow sustained in our own lives and throughout the world, we are assured of the promise that as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow, a new day will dawn.
Therein lies the tension of the faith we live and breathe, a faith that is full of contradictions because we worship a God who is big enough to accommodate the “both/and” realities that are a hallmark of our experience of being human.
Every year, we get pulled into a harried performance of sending cards, baking cookies, making fudge, cooking dinner, hosting and attending holiday parties, buying gifts, and wrapping presents. And as stressful and fast-paced as this performance can be, we must get something out of it. Sure, it is nice to spend time and relax with those we love. And it is nice to bring a smile to another person’s face. But I also suspect this performance offers us a distraction on some level. In all the “acting,” we distract ourselves from confronting head on the darkness that exists in our lives during the holiday season. After all, the message we hear loud and clear is that we are not supposed to be sad on Christmas.
But many people are sad on Christmas. And sadness – darkness – is very much a part of our lives. Yet it is our sadness, our despair, our brokenness, our own experience of darkness that compels us even more to seek after the light. If Christmas is to truly mean something to us, we must take the time to encounter the darkness in our lives and to reflect on the ways that others are light for us, to give thanks for that light and to be that light for others.
It was no mistake that Jesus, the true light of the world, was born in the darkness of the night. Over two thousand years later, we still seek after the same light that led the three magi to the manger where Jesus was laying. As we seek after light this Christmas, may we fall on our knees at the manger in awe and splendor as we marvel at the grace and light that casts out all the darkness of the world. For as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow, a new day will dawn.
Empathy lies at the heart of the Christian moral life and I am convinced that it should motivate our political convictions and commitments as well. When we closely examine the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth through the sacred scriptures, we encounter a variety of examples of the Son of God entering into the experiences of others, listening to their stories, and taking on their sufferings as his own. This is the ideal of public service. After all, Jesus was – and is – the model public servant.
But empathy poses a significant challenge to those who practice it, which is what makes this virtue so difficult to acquire. The virtue of empathy entails personal transformation, which requires social obligation. It is difficult to be sensitive to the experiences of those around us, to admit that we are all too often wrong about an opinion that we hold to be true, to be transformed by a new perspective that is different from our own, and to take on new practices that shift how we interact with others.
There is a man in Washington, D.C. who can usually be found near Dupont Circle holding a cardboard sign that simply reads: “Seeking human kindness.” In a world that is connected now more than ever through social media, we seem to be increasingly unaware of the needs of those right in front of us. How is our practice of empathy impacted when our ears are plugged by earbuds and our eyes are fixed to the screens of our iPhones? I wonder how many people actually take the time to read his sign. I wonder how many people look him in the eye and greet him with a simple hello as they pass by. And how many dare to ask him, “How are you?” It is important to have mercy on the overseas refugee, but what about the neighbor who is merely seeking the act of human kindness?
As we gear up for another election cycle, with a lot of conviction swirling around, I am reminded of the quote from Flannery O’Connor: “Conviction without experience makes for harshness.”
Yesterday, I watched Kim Davis stand on stage to “break her silence” moments after being released from jail for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples on the grounds of her literal, biblically fundamentalist Christian conviction – which undoubtedly shapes her conscience. Our beliefs ought to guide our actions and here is a woman who is literally walking the walk, not merely talking the talk like many Christians, myself included, have the tendency to often do. Here is a woman who accepted the consequences of her religious convictions and was willing to go to jail for what she believes to be true. Throughout history and to this very day, there are other examples of Christians who have been jailed for their beliefs. I’m pretty sure the Apostle Paul came to think of a jail cell as his home away from home and he would not have had it any other way! I think of civil rights activists. And I also think of my fellow Boston College alumna, Sister Megan Rice, including a host of countless others who are jailed for conscientiously breaking the law or worse yet, jailed and even murdered because of their faith.
As I listened to the few words that Kim Davis did say on stage, I also strangely found myself in agreement with her. Yes, indeed, I believe that God is worthy. God is worthy of our belief, of our praise, of our affection, and of our worship. And we Christians are indeed a strong people. It’s true; the early “church” suffered immense persecution, but prevailed by the grace of God, which empowered these early followers of The Way to bear bold, brave, and courageous testimony to the work of the Spirit through their life in Christ. Recall Tertullian’s belief that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
While the scene I watched unfold was eerily reminiscent to the scenes starring Pennsatucky from Orange Is the New Black, I also recognized that this was and is reality, not a Netflix original series. And so, I find myself asking: How can Kim Davis and I both worship the same God, practice the same religion, follow the same Christ, and yet end up with radically different conclusions about what it means to live out our faith?
Sometimes, I despair that there are two different gods at work in Christian revelation, experience, and life. Initially, I am inclined to say that Kim Davis believes out of fear, while other Christians like myself who embrace marriage equality believe out of love. But is it right – is it healthy – for people who believe as I do to condemn Kim Davis and those who agree with her? Kim Davis and those who agree with her will only do the same to us. Is that really productive, does that move us forward? Is it right – is it healthy – to dichotomize Christianity into right vs. wrong, progressive vs. conservative, educated vs. uneducated? What about Jesus? What about the good news? Where does redemption fit into all of this? It is sin that separates, grace that restores and sanctifies. We need all the grace we can get!
Our religious landscape is fast becoming a lot like our political landscape. We talk past each other. Our ego and conceit drive and uphold our belief systems, preventing us from stepping outside and beyond ourselves to learn from the life and experience of someone who is different than us. We have become lazily entrenched in our beliefs and uncompromising in our arrogance when we believe that we have nothing, absolutely nothing to learn from those who believe differently than we do. We wonder why we grow increasingly polarized, but we fail to cast the blame on ourselves.
The best thing that ever could have happened to me after graduating from Boston College was moving to Arkansas. My friends in Boston and Chicago thought I was crazy, but I did it anyway. I have nothing but gratitude for the two years that I spent in the Natural State. The people there made me a better human being as I entered into their lives and learned what they value. And the people in Arkansas are good – some of the kindest and most genuine people I have ever met, even though many of the Christians there do not agree with marriage equality. And the activists and leaders there who fight and struggle and work for diversity and inclusion are some of the bravest and most courageous I have ever known.
I’ll never forget meeting one woman while on the campaign trail. As she and I talked about politics and religion, she could not understand how I could be a Christian and a Democrat, especially since, as she reasoned, the Democrats tend to support a platform that embraces a woman’s right to choose and marriage equality, two issues that she thought to be profoundly unbiblical and antithetical to the Christian faith.
Instead of hardening my heart and walking away from her, I risked vulnerability and shared my story with her, including my support of marriage equality. I was patient, spoke in her language, and appealed to her values. By the grace of God, we ended the conversation on a positive note. She later found me in the neighborhood and, with a troubled look on her face, apologized to me for making me uncomfortable and in her words said, “I do not want you to think that I am condemning you.”
I cannot say for certain, but I am sure this woman thought highly of Kim Davis’s stance against issuing the marriage licenses to same-sex couples. But her words remain etched on my heart: “I am not condemning you.” Nor was I condemning her. Both the lady and I wanted to do the right thing. And so, we came to a place where the Spirit opened us up to each other. Of course, I acknowledge that this one isolated incident – graced though it was – is not the case for everyone. Hearts have been broken, relationships ruined, jobs have been lost, housing opportunities denied, and lives have ended because of rejection and condemnation and fear of the “Other.”
But I do have hope. And while I cannot say for certain Kim Davis would be willing to sit down and have a chat with me, I would hope her conscience would beckon her to say yes. I’m a Christian but I’m not … like Kim Davis.
Or am I?
A year has passed since the tragic bombings on Boylston Street and I am still in disbelief that it ever even happened. Evil maimed bodies, shed blood, and ended lives in a place so public and so innocent on a day so sacred and so meaningful. If you walk down Boylston Street today, it would seem as if nothing has changed. And yet, everything has. The memory is stained, embedded, and forever lurking in our collective consciousness. One year later, I find myself having fewer answers and asking more questions.
How could it be? How could it be that evil could make itself known just a few feet away from Old South Church, one of Boston’s most architecturally beautiful sacred spaces? How could it be that evil ended lives and wounded bodies on a day so bright, so beautiful, so crisp, and so full of promise? How could it be that I was not at the finish line on that day, at that hour, cheering on the runners with the gathered crowds in a place so familiar, so comfortable, and so much like home? How could it be?
Evil has no explanation. Evil has no justification. If we try to search for answers, we will become bitter, overcome with resentment, and paralyzed by fear. Evil has a way of gripping, binding, and hindering the human spirit.
This year, people from all walks of life and of every age will faithfully line the streets to cheer for the runners as they make their way to the finish line. The crowds will be bigger, the cheering will be louder, and the emotion, passion, and energy will be more palpable than ever before. This is the “miracle” of Marathon Monday – that nothing, not even bombs that take lives, fragment flesh, shatter bone, or spill blood can hinder the resilience of the human spirit. Marathon Monday is living proof to us that evil does not, cannot, and will not ever, ever, ever have the last word.
If you do not believe in the miracle of resurrection, a trip to Boston on Marathon Monday will be all the evidence you need. There, you will find the spirit of those we lost one year ago alive with each mile that is ran, with each cup of water that is handed to a parched runner, with each smile that is shared, each laugh that is had, each sign that is made, and each cheer that is exclaimed.
This is Boston getting stronger. We are Boston strong.
Dark and heavy clouds began to swirl and swell, so I went outside to take in the impending storm above my head. As I stood outside, barefoot and eating sections of a tangerine, I was oblivious to the pair of young men dressed in suits that were canvassing the neighborhood. Catching a glimpse of movement in the corner of my eye, I turned around only to see the two of them approaching me with casual smiles on their faces. I smiled back, thinking to myself that they were either Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons.
And I was excited! While most people do everything they can to avoid these missionaries, I had for quite some time longed for a pair to show up at my doorstep. I love nothing more than to have conversations with people about what makes them come alive, about where they find their place in the world, and about the faith they live and breathe. Now, the opportunity had presented itself and I was eager to seize it.
I suspect they were shocked by their encounter with a not-so-typical person like me. I confessed that I did not know much about Mormons, but was very interested in learning more about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. While I was clear to them that I was happy with the church community that I am a part of, I also noted that I was deeply disappointed by the frequent mischaracterizations of Mormons that are perpetuated by many Christians. In fact, the prior evening I had heard someone say that Mormons were not Christian. I knew in my gut that that was wrong, but I did not know enough about Mormons to justify my challenge of the person’s misguided statement. I was ashamed by my lack of knowledge.
So, after asking them why they were passionate about their church, why they have chosen to face the elements by going door-to-door to boldly give witness to their faith, I asked them how to respond to such blanket mischaracterizations in the future. I could tell they were relieved and impressed by my desire to correct the common misconceptions that abound among so many Americans. What followed was a very cursory overview of how the Mormons came to be coupled with a short presentation of The Book of Mormon. I was given my very own copy of the important text and promised them that I would add it to my library. After listening intently to their explanations, I asked them how they were received by the folks they encountered in the community. I was not at all surprised to hear that most people do not open their doors to hear the words and witness these courageous young men have to offer. I was saddened that even some opened their doors only to slam them in their faces.
But then the conversation took an unusual, graced turn. Perhaps it was the foundation of mutual trust that we had carefully laid together, but I began to tell them about my own church, how it came to be, how our common worship unites us, and how a great diversity of opinion is able to exist in the midst of a unity of believers. They listened as carefully to me as I had listened to them, taking in each word with respect and rapt attention. In a way, I suppose I was witnessing to them as much as they were witnessing to me.
I then took it upon myself to inquire about how persons who are gay are received by their church. It was a trick question. I knew what the answer was going to be, but I wanted to hear how they responded. As expected, they did not deviate from their church’s position. But when I revealed to them that I disagreed and had done my due diligence to study the scriptures and early church writings, had gone to graduate school to earn my master’s degree and had studied in depth the intersection of religion and sexuality, they continued to listen to my dissenting perspective with the same respect and rapt attention as before.
I doubt they left the conversation with a change of heart or mind, just as I did not leave with the desire to join the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. But I do know that our shared experience of being marginalized within American religious and political discourse and our common commitment to the person of Jesus Christ was enough to guide us through any disagreements we had. In fact, it did more than that. I suspect that together we moved ever more closely from a place of mere toleration to a place of acceptance. As we gazed into each other’s eyes, we could each see the humanity in each other, first and foremost. Not a superficial, nominal recognition of each other’s humanity, but the real, deep, transformative kind that is enough to give a person hope.
So, when they asked to pray with me, I happily welcomed their sacred words to a God for whom we both share such a deep and lasting affection. The prayer was one of the most beautiful, heartfelt, encouraging, prayers I have ever heard.
When an opportunity comes to your door for personal transformation, you have the choice to embrace or reject it. And the relationship, if it is truly good, will be a mutual witness to a love that drives out all hate, all fear, and all the sin of the world.
Our desires play such an important role in forming who we are as persons. Who and what we value and who and what we want to become all shape what we do to realize those desires.
Many of us desire a certain level of success in life. Certainly, a successful life can mean a great many things for a great many people. The ancients thought success was attained by living the “good life,” a life spent thinking with others about what it means to be human in a socially complex world. And Plato’s Republic begins with a very simple question: “What is justice?” An important question many are still rightfully pondering to this day. Centuries later, the great medieval philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas took this quest to an even deeper level by insisting that success was beatitude, a sort of eternal happiness given only by the grace of God after living a virtuous life.
Setting aside these important contributions from philosophy and theology alike, success today has taken on a variety of different meanings. For many, success is measured by a promotion, a six-figure salary, or fame, glory, prestige, and honor. Still yet, for many, it can also mean raising children to be fully and freely themselves, a healthy marriage, and the personal fulfillment one feels in one’s gut when living out one’s own vocation, whatever that may be. It can also be a combination of some of the above, or perhaps none of the above.
Success is also very much a mindset. There are two things I think we should all be particularly mindful of: (1) a “zero-sum game” type of success (e.g., Person 1 is successful only because Person 2 is not) and (2) a “compare and despair” mentality of success. For starters, I am not at all interested in playing the “zero-sum game” and I will not stoop to such a low level as to enjoy seeing another person fail. Think about how much better we would all be if we worked together as a team, helping to empower every person in every context to succeed. Imagine the possibilities of this enriched world! Moreover, the “compare and despair” mentality is pervasive … amplified, unfortunately, by social media. It should always be a privilege to share in the joy of another’s success. But when we become jealous of another person’s success that ought to tell us something about ourselves, which should stop us in our tracks. Negativity is always a self-fulfilling prophecy and no one enjoys being around a negative person. Instead of comparing and focusing on what you don’t currently have, focus on what you do have in the present.
I believe an enduring challenge for all of us is to live in the moment, to focus on the present. All too often, we desire something that only inhabits the future and we lose proper perspective about what is most real in our lives, which is the very thing we most often miss: the thing that is before our eyes, in our midst, so close we can taste, touch, and feel it. Like sharing a smile with someone whose name you do not know and taking the time to celebrate the little things that make life so special. And the list goes on and on.
When we have those moments of awe and splendor that are only attainable by surrendering to the fast and forward pace of a single second in time, that is desire becoming real in our lives. And when desire (good and right desire, of course) becomes real, it is then that we have found meaningful success. Valentine’s Day is a time when we can become attuned to our different desires. It’s a time when we can step back from the business of life and assess who and what we desire. It’s a day that invites us to reflect on how our desires are shaping the person we are becoming. Perhaps most importantly, it’s a day that every person can participate in and celebrate, not just those who are in a relationship. And this special day of the year means so much more than a dozen red roses or even a box of chocolates could ever possibly convey.
Our world is pregnant with possibility, despite being suffused with suffering.
One of the hardest things for me to do is to wait. And waiting in the midst of hardship can be so painfully cruel. All the time, it seems that we find ourselves waiting. Waiting for an answer. Waiting for a better opportunity to emerge on the horizon. Waiting for new life. Waiting for new love. Waiting for a cure.
One of the worst – and easiest – things to do when we are waiting is to grow weary and impatient. We can grow so weary and impatient that we begin to take matters into our own hands when some things are just simply out of our control. As someone who loves to take control and make everything right, resigning to the fact that I cannot make everything good and better and perfect is very frustrating. And so, I sit and wait in frustration.
And frustration begins to put in a wedge in all of my relationships, including my relationship with God. It is so easy in the midst of our impatience to forget the promise of God’s providence. God cares for us and loves us in such an incredibly intimate way. We hear this all the time, but do we lavishly bask in the reassurance that God is with us?
Advent is a season of return as much as it is a season of waiting. The journey to Bethlehem is a metaphor for our return to God, our acknowledgement that we need God and the gift of salvation that God freely gives us and that we cannot be in control of everything. Advent also invites us to contemplate God as a screaming, crying, vulnerable infant – desperately in need of the love, care, and support of human beings, God’s own flesh and blood. God is not above and beyond us – but with us every single step of the way.
God waits with us. When we return to God, we find freedom in the waiting. The waiting period becomes a gestating period. And, together, we can give birth to new possibilities that we would have never before imagined.
Our world is pregnant with possibility, despite being suffused with suffering.
Because God is with us, the beginning is near!