The Face of America

The American women’s gymnastics team won first place in the World Gymnastics championships last week in Qatar. These fabulous young women vaulted, tumbled, leaped, and braved death-defying moves to outshine competitors from across the globe. While I often feel like I should raise my arms in victory any Sunday I manage the three steps up to the pulpit without tripping – yes! She stuck the landing! – they perform gravity-defying moves daily.  And they smile while doing it.

Their faces are captivating

When I watch this group of accomplished, determined, strong young women, I feel a sense of hope.

Their gymnastic ability is unparalleled.

They are world champions.

And they are the face of America.

Gymnastics 5

This team with skin tones of varying hues, with a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds – this is America. The true face of America is a collection of people from a wide variety of backgrounds who come together for a common cause. Our country has never been “white”. When the first immigrants arrived on these shores, they discovered native people who did not look like them.  And that was the beginning – for better or worse – of a new America.  Perhaps America was once racially pure – but that was long before European settlers came to this land.

Our country has a complicated history with race – the displacement and slaughter of Native inhabitants, the brutality and horror of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and the ongoing racism against people of color. Our country continues to struggle with race.

But our gymnastics team demonstrates what is possible. They remind us that people from different backgrounds can work together to make a difference. They set an example of building bridges, of being united, and of finding (or creating) common ground.

Most of us will never cartwheel on a balance beam or fly between uneven bars. But all of us can be inspired by the determination and hard work of this young team and vow to represent our country with the same grace and unity.

Carefully choosing our mentors

Who is someone you admire? Who is someone you have learned from? Our congregation enjoys a mentorship program with the 9th and 10th graders in our confirmation class. Adults meet monthly with the teens to wrestle with the concept of living a faithful life in a sometimes chaotic world. They talk about Scripture, current events, and the joys and challenges of listening for God’s voice. These different generations listen and learn from one another.

I was blessed with a wonderful mentor as I prepared for ministry. The Rev. Dr. Bruce Bunker was the pastor of the First Congregational Church in Wallingford CT. When I was a young seminarian, he recommended thought-provoking books and essays and made time to listen to my questions and doubts. He welcomed me to the pulpit of our large downtown church so I could offer my first faltering attempts at preaching and then would diplomatically review the results. He arranged for speech lessons so my high-pitched, nervous squeak could evolve into a lower range that could convey authority and confidence. In an age when women clergy were still relatively rare, he encouraged me to pursue a solo pastorate. He believed in my call to ministry and that helped me believe it, too. His encouragement and faith in me was life-changing. His ministry was an inspiration to my own and I am forever grateful.

I wish everyone could have a mentor like that. Sadly, these days there are few public leaders I would wish to emulate or that I would recommend as a role model. If we believed the mocking tones of so many politicians, one might be tempted to believe that it is acceptable to callously ignore the feelings and worth of others.

This is a time to choose our mentors carefully. The loudest or most powerful person may not be the wisest choice. Dangerous, uncaring messages and hate-filled rhetoric fill the news. We are being asked to believe that callous indifference is the “new normal.” We may be tempted to think that our small efforts can have no impact on the growing tide of anger and division. But that is not true.

Instead, look for the behind-the-scenes workers – the ones who are feeding the hungry, visiting the lonely, and caring about the forgotten. Notice the people whose smile or kind words lift someone’s spirit. Those mentors are all around us – people making a difference despite the increasing odds against them. Look for those who faithfully live lives of compassion – not for recognition or glory, but because they feel called to care for God’s people.

Many people in positions that were traditionally revered as positive role models simply do not deserve that title. Let us not be discouraged by the multiple examples of indifference. Instead, let us be inspired by those who are acting in life-giving, hope-providing, difference-making ways. Let us choose our mentors wisely and be courageous enough to pass on a legacy of caring.

Time for compassion

Just for a moment, let’s leave politics out of it.  It’s been a long, trying, emotional couple of weeks as we have testimony from Dr. Blasey Ford and Judge Kavanaugh.

I believe Dr. Blasey Ford, but even if you don’t, it is time to look at the women and girls around us with compassion.  Saint Paul talks about putting on an “armor of faith” (Ephesians 6). He describes it as including a breastplate of righteousness, a helmet of salvation and a sword of the Spirit.

Right now I would settle for a heart of compassion and a gentle hand of mercy. It’s time to put our armor down and instead experience vulnerability of listening to one another. Let’s stop drawing battle lines based on which testimony we believe. Instead, take a moment to recognize the millions of women and girls who are suffering flashbacks to their moments of powerlessness, their experiences with violence, and their journeys into shame and degradation. Forget about arming ourselves for further arguments and division. Let’s hear those who are saying #metoo.

I have heard from many women who were either unable to listen to Dr. Blasey Ford’s description of attempted rape because of the painful memories it recalled or who found themselves riveted as they heard someone else describe the terror they thought only they knew about.

You can discount Dr. Blasey Ford’s words if you wish. But you can’t ignore the legions of women who have experienced violence and who remained silent because of fear or humiliation.

If someone has a story to tell, the greatest gift you can offer is simply to listen. You don’t need to have answers or wisdom. You probably don’t need to say anything except, “I hear you. I believe you. I’m sorry you experienced that.”

In the compassionate version of the world I yearn for, we offer one another solidarity, a listening ear, and a tender heart.  We assure women and girls who have not been heard or believed that we are now listening. And we remind them that they are beloved children of God – strong, valuable, lovable, and deserving of dignity.

That’s the world I want to live in.  We create that world every time one of us opens our hearts to compassion and caring.

You have 30 seconds

A car horn blared behind me, seeming to make my whole car shake and causing me to clench the steering wheel even tighter. The large black truck had been following me very closely for the last mile; only our narrow, windy country roads prevented him from passing me. Now that we had reached an intersection, he was clearly fed up with my speed-limit driving. He wanted me out of his way – fast. The fact that two cars were approaching, making it impossible for me to cross the busy street made no difference to him. He expressed his frustration with his loud horn as he rolled down and shouted words I won’t repeat.

When it was safe, I drove across the street, still shaken by the anger that followed me. There on the other side of the intersection, sitting in his truck, was a young man from our congregation.  He also rolled down the window. His interaction with me was entirely different. He gave me a big smile and leaned out to wave his hand. We didn’t speak, but my spirits were lifted by his cheery greeting and obvious goodwill.

Each encounter lasted no more than 30 seconds but the impact was powerful. It helped me realize what a difference our words and actions can have. Never underestimate your ability to influence the mood or even the entire day of another human being. Every day – and several times in each day – we have a choice of how we will live, speak, and interact with one another. Whether the person we encounter is a stranger or friend, we have a choice about what impression we will make and how we will leave that person after we part. Will that person be better off, lifted up, or encouraged? Or will our words and actions leave that person hurt, angry, or afraid? The choice is ours.

In the story of the Exodus, Moses tells the people of Israel that they are responsible for their actions. Moses describes the choice that they have; “See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction.  For I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws… I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life…” (Deuteronomy 30).

Choose life. Choose kindness, every time. Choose civility, choose respect, choose patience. Choose to treat the other person as you would wish to be treated. Don’t overlook those 30 second encounters. They might make all the difference.

You have 30 seconds to make a difference – now go out and share God’s love.

Faithful, not successful

“Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers…”  Matthew 10:8

Jesus gave these instructions to the disciples before he died. He tells them to carry on his ministry by sharing God’s life-changing love. Jesus instructs his followers to offer healing and hope wherever they go.

There is plenty of need. We don’t have to look far to see the pain of this world, filled with brokenness, addiction, division, and loss. Now it’s our turn to be those disciples and put our faith into action. We might be inspired to support refugees, fight food insecurity, or address racism and inequality. We might feel called to love our neighbor in big and small ways.

But then – hesitation sets in. Why bother? Two thousand years after Jesus told his disciples to live their faith, the world is still a mess. For anyone who enjoys problem-solving and the satisfaction of getting things done, this is a discouraging track record. Sometimes it seems there is a distinct lack of tangible results.

But maybe we are expecting more of ourselves than God does. God demands faithfulness, not success.  Not being able to solve a problem or eliminate a challenge does not give us permission to ignore it. We are called to do what we can, help when we are able, and trust that God is at work.

Living faithfully is a marathon. It is the work of a lifetime where results are not always obvious. Sometimes the smallest actions can make a difference. Author Joyce Rupp wisely said, “People gain so much hope when they know they are not experiencing something alone.” It may be impossible to eliminate someone’s pain or transform their circumstances. But faithfulness tells us to show up, acknowledge the need, listen to someone’s story, accompany them in their pain, and offer a meal or a coat or a helping hand or a listening ear.

This quote hangs by my desk and inspires me every day:

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief.

Do justly now.

Love mercy now.

Walk humbly now.

You are not obligated to complete the work but neither are you free to abandon it.

Let’s recognize the great need that is all around us and respond with God’s love and care. We can respond with faith and leave the success up to God.

Joyfully adequate

Our local agricultural extravaganza, the Woodstock Fair, opens on Friday. Thousands of people will flock to view horse and cattle shows and gaze with admiration at the delicious pies and cakes, stunning photos, and astounding crafts on display. Ribbons will be awarded proudly proclaiming, “Best of Show.” I have great admiration for those who have worked hard toward earning those accolades.

But today I want to celebrate those of us who will never win first prize, those of us who, despite our best efforts, will never make it to the winners’ circle. By definition, there can only be a limited number of “winners” in the traditional sense. Today I would like to honor those who participate in a hobby, join a team, or experiment with a new activity not because they will ever be the “best” but simply because it brings them joy.

I want to celebrate the ability to be gloriously, joyfully adequate.

I play the piano. You will never hear me play because I am really bad. But it brings me joy and provides me a few moments to separate myself from daily worries as I focus on reading notes to create a simple melody. No one would want to listen, but it amuses me. I am a joyfully adequate piano player.

The same thing is true with my yoga practice, where I inhabit the “beginners” class even after ten years of faithful attendance. I suspect I have found my niche.  I may not get “better,” but I like how I feel when I participate.  I am a joyfully adequate yogi.

Knitting falls in the same category. One might think that after two decades of knitting, I would be creating intricate designs and deftly folding cable knits into cardigans. The reality is that my knitting is limited to the simplest patterns. But my basic knitting creates prayer shawls and prayer shawls can remind recipients that they are surrounded by God’s love. My knitting is joyfully adequate and yet it can provide hope and comfort.

There is a lot of pressure on children (and adults) to be “the best.”  Of course everyone should strive to produce their own best effort. But there is also great power in pursuing an activity not because we are “the best” but simply because it allows our spirits to soar. We may not be proficient but we may encounter the joy of being immersed in an activity that lifts our spirits or calms our busy minds. That’s a blessing.

I attended a workshop years ago entitled, “What makes your heart sing?” The presenter encouraged participants to explore a wide variety of activities without the burden of comparing the outcome to everyone else.  What joy! I don’t have to be the “best.” If this activity – music, hiking, cooking, art, writing, whatever it is – feeds my spirit, that is what I can do.

I may not win a ribbon and my name may not be recorded in the winner’s circle, but I can celebrate the joy of being gloriously adequate.

Hope – the church’s job

Here is one of the most hopeful phrases in the Bible: “God remembered Noah” (Genesis 8:1).

Think about it. Noah was in an ark surrounded by water. He and his family members were trapped in very cramped quarters with an abundance of animals. This had been going on for months. There was no way out.

There were no signs of relief. As far as he could see, there was water. Just water. No mountains, no trees, no break in the desolation. At some point, Noah must have felt alone, overwhelmed, and forgotten. It seemed like a hopeless situation.

But then – “God remembered Noah.” Noah was not, in fact, alone. He had not been, in fact, forgotten. Yes, the circumstances were dire. Yes, the outlook was grim. But Noah could be heartened by realizing that he did not have to face this desperate, gut-wrenching situation by himself.

One of our jobs as the church is to remind God’s people about hope.  This is not about ignoring painful realities or pretending that everything is “just fine.” In fact, it is just the opposite. We are called to recognize the challenging situations where people find themselves. We can identify those times of grief and loss, loneliness and isolation that can cause people to despair. Those are real.

We dare to enter into and share one another’s pain because of that short Scripture verse. We can proclaim what is true. God remembers us. God will not abandon us. In the midst of our struggles and in the middle of our doubt, God remembers us.

The church’s job is to celebrate this Good News and offer hope. When we come together as the people of God – flawed and frail as we may be – we are embodying this message of hope. We promise to walk with one another through those challenging times. We will steady one another as we experience emotional rollercoasters. We may not be strong enough on our own, but we don’t have to be. We can offer to one another God’s love, compassion, and caring.

We can promise to remember one another so that no one has to go on this journey alone.

No church is perfect, but every church is called to share the Good News of God’s enduring hope.