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.

Some words shouldn’t be spoken

Ten students had their coveted Harvard admissions letter rescinded.  Why? They posted obscene, racist, misogynist memes on-line. People have been debating whether a college has the right to limit public expression, no matter how distasteful.

But some words shouldn’t be spoken.

A young woman is on trial in Boston right now for involuntary manslaughter. She allegedly coerced her boyfriend into committing suicide. She was not with him at the time. But she sent a series of messages and texts encouraging him to succumb to carbon monoxide poisoning.  “Get back in the truck,” she urged him, “finish what you started.”  She never touched him, but her words compelled him.

Some words shouldn’t be spoken.

The Bible contains dozens of warnings about the power of our words. James marvels, “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire” (3:5).  One cruel or thoughtless comment has the ability to ruin a day or crumble faltering confidence. We have all been on the receiving end of cutting remarks or demeaning comments. That pain stays with us.  We have all uttered words we desperately wished to take back. That regret lingers.

Some words shouldn’t be spoken.

What about free speech? The First Amendment is not a “get out of jail” card; it does not pardon all language. The old saying reminds us – your right to swing your arm ends at the tip of my nose. In other words, freedom is not permission to hurt someone. We should not cause harm.

Some words shouldn’t be spoken.

Words have great power. They can be used to proclaim truth, soothe feelings, and extend encouragement. What if we offered our words as a gift to one another? Paul reminds us, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen”(Ephesians 4:29). What a different world it would be.

Some words shouldn’t be spoken. Instead, let us share words that give hope, lift one another up, and nurture broken spirits. When correction or instruction is necessary, let us offer it in ways that can be received instead each other with a barrage of belittling comments.

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Let us take the Psalmist’s prayer to heart: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O God” (Psalm 19).