Today I Saw God
We knew they were coming. The group of white supremacists had been issued a permit to gather in Lafayette Park, on this, the one-year anniversary of the “Unite the Right” event in Charlottesville. At their 2017 gathering, Heather Heyer, a counter-protester, was killed, while others were physically injured and their city was left scarred and deeply saddened. Now they were coming to Washington, D.C.
A call was initiated by the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church to respond to the white supremacist rally with a rally of our own. I’d heard that there would be a group from Floris UMC going. Something inside inclined me to sign up.
Let’s be clear: I am not a very brave person. I am no risk taker. I am not foolhardy. I have never stood before the barrel of a gun, never truly feared for my life, and certainly never placed myself intentionally in the presence of someone I knew would be spewing hatred, shouting racist epithets or chanting anti-Semitic slogans. (Heck, I don’t even like the unruly crowds at Redskin games.) All of this swam in my mind as I boarded the Floris UMC bus to head downtown.
There were 12 of us on that bus: 10 courageous women, one pastor and bus-driver extraordinaire and me. During the ride down, organizers of our group delivered our “marching orders.” In case we were confronted by hostile protesters or situations that posed harm, we were to defuse any altercations, assist anyone subjected to harm and were not to engage any form of hatred. Our job was to sow peace, the peace of Christ. But, just in case something untoward occurred, we arranged for an alternate meeting spot, shared phone numbers, and signed into event alerts. Maps indicating the nearest metro stations were distributed, just in case we couldn’t get back to the bus.
This, you might imagine, did not assuage my fears. There I was, sitting in the back of a church bus, apparently headed straight into what might be harms way. I sat pretty quietly during that ride in spite of the lively chatter which surrounded me. This was a pack of peacemakers with a purpose! I was completely out of my league.
The plan was to collect for a pre-march pep rally at Christ United Methodist Church, so after Rev. Bob’s miraculous parallel parking on DC city streets, we poured out of that bus and onto the sidewalk to head to church. First, prayer. Circling to hold hands, Sara Greer even convinced a group of kids walking our way to join us. All prayed up, we headed to church where we were greeted warmly, welcomed magnanimously and inspired by word, song and fellowship. They handed us a lunch – our last meal? – as we gathered behind the banner to begin our march.
Our police escort immediately surrounded us. They proceeded to stop traffic, so this little band — multi-racial, multi-ethnic, broad-ranging in age and mobility — could all find its way safely. As we spilled onto the grassy lawn of the mall, instead of the hatred, weaponry, and harsh words I feared, we were greeted by nothing but love. A beautiful stage had been erected right in front of the Capitol building, its banner announcing our common purpose: United to Love.
Kicking off this rally, Bishop LaTrelle Easterling told us, this was not a meeting of counter-protesters. In fact, it came about in response to a request directed to the bishop imploring her to lead the effort to deny the “Unite-the-Right-ers” permission to rally. “Absolutely not,” she told them. “If we take away their rights, they will have the right to take away ours.” Instead, we will rally under this banner. Not as counter-protesters, shouting down hatred, but as representatives of a force stronger than hate, because, as Dr. King said, “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”
United to Love had a permit, too — for the mall, not Lafayette Park, thank goodness! I would not be standing eye to eye with white supremacists, but surrounded by love in all colors and denominations. Relief! I even saw a bit of humor in this. As we staked out our place on the grass, we were instantly dive-bombed by dozens of large flying bugs that resembled dragonflies. One in particular hovered so close to me and held me with such intent focus, I imagined him a dragonfly-drone collecting data on this new species of Invader. I waved a happy so-long, as he buzzed off.
Then I settled onto a borrowed beach blanket to enjoy the spectacle: song and word, prayer and praise, fellowship and message. A rally it was, to God be every bit of the glory. Yes, we knew that hatred and bigotry was gathering just a few blocks from us but we couldn’t hear them and we couldn’t see them; it was only from news reports via digital media that we heard they were there. Instead we were focused on the future, on ways that moved us forward, on a path we could chart together. We, a diverse group of interfaith worshipers, gathered in support of our common humanity and each other. That, I felt sure, was not what was happening in Lafayette Park.
Then the funniest of thoughts creeped in. What if all the dragonflies really are drone-spies sent by the “Unite the Right” rally organizers to report on that “other rally” down on the mall? I wondered what they’d think of what was being shared here: messages of hope, commitment, and unconditional love, amid preaching and teaching affirming that we, in our diverse array, are each expressions of a God whose nature is love.
OK, now that I’m relaxed and amused and my life doesn’t feel quite so endangered, this out-of-doors praising God inclines me to worship with a bit more abandon — to raise my hand in affirmation, clap my hands in rhythm and raise my voice in response. I’ll be honest, I feel way more free to really worship here than I feel inside a Sanctuary on a Sunday.
Our times make it clear that now is the time we need to raise our hand when we see injustice and raise our voices to stand against it. From Micah 6, we take our marching orders… what does the Lord require of you?
As I look behind me and scan the gathering of the faithful around me, a peace that passes understanding settles over me. The trepidation I came with is gone. No, I’m not a risk-taker by nature, but I’m no standby-er either. I rise to wander through and greet a few folks, but mostly to snap photos of the amazing expressions of God’s mercy, love and justice, on display right there on the D.C. Mall.
How proud I feel to have marched behind the banner which is now draped over the fence with the Capitol building as backdrop. Midway through the rally, as the afternoon sun beats down on us, and most of the crowd have taken shelter in the shade to right or left of the stage (but not the hardcore like us!), Dr. David McAllister-Wilson, President of Wesley Seminary addresses those gathered. He wonders to us, What is Unite the Right? How are they right? He concludes that they have gotten it confused. Not unite the right, rather, unite the righteous. “Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.” ~ James 3:18
Many speakers refer to the distinction between our rally and that of “those gathered a few blocks away.” It starts me wondering if our times are something like the day in another capitol city, Jerusalem, some 2,000 or so years ago when there were also two parades. Along one parade route people shouted Hosanna and waved palm branches, welcoming Jesus riding humbly on a donkey. Along the other rode Pontius Pilate, Roman governor of Judea, adorned in his imperial majesty. One rally peaceful, one rally proud. The peaceful not a counter-protest but a different message, entirely.
Sometimes, when we as people who are not brave, not risk-takers, and not particularly well-suited to diffuse differences or sow peace, let the God of love drag us up out of our pews into our nation’s capitol on a Sunday, we are forced to see and hear what is going on in our day.
I marched and rallied on Sunday in order to magnify the message that Jesus reverberates through the ages: “faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” Love is the eternal answer to the toughest questions of every age.
The question that remains: what will the followers of Jesus do with the message of love? We’d best be love.
At the end of this year, my husband and I will be moving to Williamsburg. Between now and then we have a number of things to do and a very limited time in which to do them. Two of them are unavoidable: cleaning out the old house and planning the new one. Each of these “to do’s” comes with its own set of challenges and its own offering of unique opportunities.
Cleaning out what you've collected over the course of a 26-year stay can be both overwhelming and freeing. Honestly, it’s a bit embarrassing what you find under the weight of all those years. Stuff you’ve forgotten and shoved aside, something you purchased but only used once, and much that time and technology has rendered obsolete. But also tucked away in that storage are a few precious gems: old photos, letters from a friend, a lock of the baby’s hair. These are keepers. I’ll take them with me.
On the other hand, creating the house you've dreamed of can be both daunting and delightful. While I feel incredibly grateful to be able to build a house, the burden of “getting it right” feels quite heavy. There are so many people to consult, decisions to make and costs to cover. Plus, planning for a future you don’t know in a place you’ve never lived… well, there’s just a lot of guesswork involved. And a lot of hoping.
I find myself reminded of the words of scripture that greeted me when I was new at Floris and unsure about my decision to leave my old church. In my very first small group study, we read the words spoken to Abram, “Go to the land I will show you.” (Gen 12.1) Not, here’s a map. Not, here are three nice plots of land, choose one. Not even, follow me. Simply, go. And as you go, I’ll show you where and what and how.
But I haven’t left yet! So, as preparations are made, I have been gifted with a short time to complete what I started here. What needs finishing? What loose ends need tying? What haven’t I done yet that I may not get to do again? Honestly, if it weren’t for the impending departure, I doubt I would ever find myself in this place. But now that I do, I am trying to honor it. What do I want to do before I go?
Isn't it interesting how scripture seems to prepare us for ANY occasion? As Bishop Palmer so conveniently reminded us via sermon last week, when Jesus knew he was on his way out, he gathered his disciples to tell them: if you don't remember anything else, remember this: stoop, kneel and wash the wounds of this world. I’ll be honest: taking one's leave does sharpen one's focus, even if divinity isn't in your bloodline. You know what they say, you can't take it with you.
So, as I take my leave from Floris UMC -- yes, I think a 3-hour commute on a Sunday is probably not in the cards -- I am saddened by the thought that I can't take it, take you, with me. I can't take the friends, the kindnesses, the notes, or the conversations. I can't take the small groups who welcomed me gladly and set me on a level place. I can't take the vitality, the diversity, the fiscal responsibility, or the trust that has inspired deeper stewardship. I can't take the message or the messengers that have shaped the word of God in me, as much as I'd like to.
Nope, I have to leave all that behind. Or do I?
This pondering is another gift of the before-I-go time. As I look underneath all the clutter I have acquired over my time here, I discover the keepers that I DO get to take with me. In fact, I must, because now they are a part of me.
- From you, friends, I have learned the impact of small kindnesses and the power to pay it forward.
- From your acceptance, I have gained the confidence to risk being myself without apology, always with an eye tuned to what others have to teach me.
- From your vitality, born of discipline, I have learned that no's open the doors to yeses I would not otherwise have seen.
- Your message has inspired me to think and write, on this blog and elsewhere, and even to publish what I've written.
Thank you for your patience as I have found my way among you, friends. And to my pew-mates who have observed my scribbling furiously during every sermon, thank you for indulging me. It is a labor born of love.
On the wall of my teen-aged bedroom there hung a poster I loved. In the foreground was a beautiful white bird taking flight over rolling surf at the edge of a vast oceanic expanse. Written in script across the sand were the words: "If you love something, set it free. If it comes back, it's yours. If not, it never really was."
Floris United Methodist Church, you have my enduring thanks and my undying love. As I go, you go with me. I'll be back.
J.K.Rowling first dreamed up Harry Potter in 1990, while on a train from Manchester to London. She finished the story in 2007 with the final book in the seven-novel epic. Now, that's a long story. Those who followed it all the way to its conclusion were held in suspense until the very last pages. We were all surprised by the ending all of us, that is, except J.K. Rowling. She clearly had planned it all from the very beginning; she always knew how it would end.
This is the wonder of a great story and the gift of the great storyteller. They plot everything precisely and then make us wait for the surprise ending. While we wait, our anticipation grows, preparing us for the BIG finish! In the end, what we couldn't possibly have imagined happening surprises us, and we're completely gob-smacked by the satisfaction we feel. If we had skipped ahead to the conclusion, it would be empty. We'd have an ending, but no resolution.
It's tempting in today's world to want to fast forward things. Our technology and consumer conveniences make it possible to skip the lines, avoid the traffic, and tape the game so we can fast forward through the commercials. Stories aren't meant to be experienced this way. They take their time, justlike our lives do. That's a good thing, right? Who wants to rush to the end?
But really, why not? If what God has promised is so much better than what we've got, why not fast-forward us to the good part? Perhaps because the God who is able to do immeasurably more than we could ask or imagine (Eph 3:20), is still working on us.
Now to him who is ableto do immeasurably more than all we askor imagine, according to his powerthat is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. ~Ephesians 3:20
God, the great storyteller, is telling His story by His power that is at work within us. For the satisfying resolution to make sense to us, we have to read all the way through to our last page.
We're not meant to jump to the end of our lives without reading the middle parts. Something of God grows up in our lives as we learn to lead them. It will allow us, with all the Lord's holy people, to stand before the love of Christ that is so much more than anyone could ever ask or imagine and find ourselves completely filled by it. (Eph 3: 14-20) Hard to believe,right?
Definitely. Yet, if Ms. Rowling had told me in book three how Harry's story would end, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have believed it either. It took four more books to develop the breadth of things which ushered me into the only ending that made sense.
So, even though from my vantage point on this side of my life story, the path to a happy ending may look narrow and perilous, to the God who conceived, wrote and is still writing it, it's a broad expanse. It'll take a lifetime's filling of His Spirit for meto see and believe just how wide and long and high and deepis the love of Christ for me. Surprise!!
Perhaps this is what the late Steve Jobssaw on his deathbed as he uttered his last recorded words: "Oh Wow. Oh Wow. Oh Wow."Can you imagine what would make aninventor, creator, and visionary like Jobs say that?Yeah, me neither. Guess we'll just have to wait.
"Not speaking and speaking are both human ways of being in the world, and there are kinds and grades of each," writes Paul Goodman in the Nine Kinds of Silence.
"There is the dumb silence of slumber or apathy;the sober silence that goes with a solemn animal face;the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul, whence emerge new thoughts;the alive silence of alert perception, ready to say, "This this";the musical silence that accompanies absorbed activity;the silence of listening to another speak, catching the drift and helping him be clear;the noisy silence of resentment and self-recrimination, loud and sub-vocal speech but sullen to say it;baffled silence;the silence of peaceful accord with other persons or communion with the cosmos."
What a beautiful display, like the unfurling of cards in your hand. At first, one, and then one by one, slowly displayed and made available to be played.
Silence, not just one thing but many. Mesmerizing. As in the magical world of The Phantom Tollbooth
"Have you ever heard the wonderful silence just before the dawn? Or the quiet and calm just as a storm ends? Or perhaps you know the silence when you haven't the answer to a question you've been asked, or the hush of a country road at night, or the expectant pause of a room full of people when someone is just about to speak, or, most beautiful of all, the moment after the door closes and you're alone in the whole house? Each one is different, you know, and all very beautiful if you listen carefully."Norton Juster
Ah, the moment after the door closes when you are all alone in the whole house. Silence is so much more than quiet. It is shush. It is thinking. It is fear. It is failure. It is overpowering. It is overpowered. It is an expectation. It is reciprocation. It is listening. It is distracted. Isn't silence amazing?
Goodman and Juster have inspired me to think about the many kinds of Generosity, for "not giving and giving are both human ways of being in the world, and there are kinds and grades of each."
There is the selfish generosity which withholds because it doesn't notice need; the generosity of scarcity which hoards and stores, fearing scant days ahead; the glad generosity which gains by opening generosity's door; the generosity of the perfect gift which smiles in anticipation; the generosity of giving without expecting anything in return; the generosity of listening which, by its attention, strengthens and grows; the shrinking generosity of payment due, extracting joy; the gift declined; and yet, yet, the generosity of spirit, unbidden, uncompelled, offered wholly back to God and to those whom God loves.
Giving and not giving are both human ways of being in the world. Only one remains.It is not the gift God loves, it's the giver.
Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.Each one must give as he has decided in his heart,not reluctantly or under compulsion, forGod loves a cheerful giver. ~2 Corinthians 9:6-7
When my girls were small, they thought I had magical healing powers. I could kiss a scrape or bandage a cut and presto! It would be "all better." They would smile and go back to playing. Today, these girls are young women, and I no longer have that power. They spend their days working hard in places far from home, and when they hurt they're on their own. They're old enough to know that kisses do not work long distance, only in person.
I'm grateful that my girls know that Christ can be such a person, thanks to Sunday school teachers, worship leaders, mentors and pastors. Thank goodness, because the world my kids navigate is very different from the one I grew up in. It's different, even, than the one they knew as children. Today, it seems, there is more shouting and posturing, more blatant hatred and prejudice, and more evident disrespect for persons and planet on a global scale. Nearly everywhere there is rubble, covered in dust.
This is the world my children have inherited from me, and the world I receive today in news, navigation and neighborhood. So many dusty images flood my mind, of collapse and heartbreak, earthquake and explosion, fire and flood, with medics and rescue personnel searching desperately for survivors.
In Mexico City recently, the collapse of buildings brought rescue efforts to the scene of a school. Oh children, especially children the weakest, youngest and most promising among us bid us to pause hoping, waiting, listening, praying.
How in the midst of all of our commotion can we hear a tiny cry, barely a breath? But when together we pause and a hush falls, we do hear it. Then suddenly there is furious digging, hand to hand and shoulder to shoulder, cobbling through earth and stone and rubble to reach the tiny one before it's too late.
Shovelfuls of earth yield to hands which brush away dirt and debris as the small, still form is lifted to safety. Silence doesn't dare hope. But suddenly, there are shouts: "The child is alive!" Oh, such cheering and joy must reach through tear-stained cheeks to the very ears of God. Out of the dust there is life.
Hope is there when brother acknowledges brother, father welcomes son, and foe becomes friend. When we all gather with one cause, one intention, and one mission, our hopes are realized. We do this for our children, for all children.
"Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
You will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings." (Isaiah 58:12)
The business of rebuilding the ancient foundations falls to us. We will be called repairer of broken walls, restorer of streets with dwellings. Dwellings where our children can raise their children, with loving care tendered to kiss scraped knees, and all children can play together.
Lord, thank you for the resilience and tenacity of children. Help us to love them well by providing sturdy support and a firm foundation on which they can build.