Way back in the 1900’s, the ’70s to be precise, I was in elementary school. One of my favorite gym class activities was to glide across the floor on wooden skooters. Oh, the feeling of the wind in your hair and the sensation of speed! Well, we couldn’t go that fast but it seemed fast to me! Along we would go having a great time and then it would happen…Mr. Quici would blow his whistle, the ear splitting blurt that meant we “all stop now”.
I remember thinking “why do we ALL have to stop?! I’m not hurt! It’s not fair! I’m having a good time. Why are you harshing my skooter mellow, Mr. Quici?!”
We stopped because someone was hurt. Usually it was a skooter over hand injury. It happens, despite the rules that clearly stated not to let go of the handles. Stopping was necessary for the gym teacher to be able to focus his attention on the injured person to inspect how severe the damage and whether further medical attention was needed. He couldn’t focus on the injured AND monitor us little speed racers at the same time. That’s the truth. It also served as a moment for all of us to be reminded about the real risk involved with what we are doing and to be careful because the next time the whistle blows it could be for our little fingers…at which point everyone stopping for you would make complete sense.
When it happened to one of my friends, I wanted to cry. Not because I was mad at her for breaking the rule of letting go of the handles and using them to push off of other people or causing my fun time to be held up for a while. I wanted to cry because my friend was hurt. It didn’t matter how, it only mattered that she was hurt and I wanted her not to hurt anymore. I was focused on her needs, not my own. I focused on her pain, not my own. In that moment she needed help, more than I could offer, but I could offer my loving support.
At the end of the final plenary session of the Susquehanna Annual Conference in Hershey someone rose to ask for support for someone they cared about who was hurting. She asked for people to rise to recognize that people were hurt by the recent division-causing actions in our beloved United Methodist Church. There are a lot of layers to that onion, folks. It was, for me I’m sorry to say, as upsetting as the gym teacher’s whistle. Everything was going along about as well as could be expected and we are pulling into the final stretch of the day, almost on to lunch, when we were presented with an opportunity to stop and recognize that someone else was hurting. To focus on that injured person. Not ourselves, that person. It didn’t matter how they were hurt or who was responsible, all that mattered in that moment, all I could focus on was that they were hurting. I try to notice hurting people, strangers I encounter, and show them the goodness of God when given that opportunity. These were people in my own church conference. How could I not automatically want to show them the goodness of God? Yet, I paused.
Folks, I know there’s church politics and then there’s deep and abiding faith and sometimes they collide. In that moment they collided for me big time.
The worst response to an ugly situation is to be ugly. The next worse response is none at all.
I prayed, asking Jesus what he wanted me to do. I wanted to get to lunch. I wanted to go back five minutes to when I was comfortable. But I understand the kind of hurt that was being expressed. I also understood that I was sitting in a room full of deeply held opinions. Two people behind me loudly murmured their protests and proclaimed they would NEVER stand and this was an “absolutely disgraceful display”. It was clear what they wanted me to do. Nothing. Grace is something we cannot earn but can give. And it became quite clear…
“Dis-grace-ful” was the best description of the “display” behind me.
Suddenly, it didn’t matter who was behind me, or beside me, only Him who leads me. After a quick exhale, letting go of absolutely everything else but the question, “Jesus, what do YOU want me to do?” Clear as a whistle the answer came, “Just stand”.
Just stand. I was not instructed to fix the problem once and for all or to address the assembly with an inspiring and moving statement, or turn around and wag a finger at the people behind me. “Just stand.” And I did.
Nothing was solved. The situation was not fixed. There was no change except for the visual confirmation that some are willing to stand up for people who are hurting for no other reason than Christ calls us to help the hurting. Or tells one lone pastor to “just stand”.
I took a lot of grief after. I was asked to explain my “actions” more than once. And the fact is, I had no idea why Jesus wanted me to stand but I know that when I hear a word that clearly I must comply and maybe the understanding will come later. And maybe not. I had to wonder why others were more concerned about why I stood than why they didn’t? Was God talking to them in that moment too and they chose not to listen? Was God telling them not to stand?
When God’s people are hurting we are called to walk with them toward healing not cross our arms, scowl our face and murmur under our breath our protests and our excuses. And yes, I know that some felt better about themselves by sitting still. And nothing was solved. The situation was not fixed. There was no change except for the visual confirmation that some are just as ticked off now as they were before and some are just as hurt as they were before. I’ve heard these wonderful and different people ask, “How do we move forward?” Perhaps by changing our focus instead of digging in our heels just a little deeper?
Sins of deception are sins, absolutely. And sins of omission and dereliction are also sins, absolutely. These sins matter and the consequences must be dealt with. The sinners matter, too, and must be dealt with.
My heart broke not for me or for the ones already hurting so much as for the good people who do not understand, the way I do at least, the words I live by that Jesus taught his disciples who asked “Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law?”…
We sit in pews and talk about loving our enemy as an honorable Jesus thing. But we struggle to love people we view in our unique lens as wrong, period. Yet Jesus doesn’t say “Understand your neighbor as well as you understand yourself.” Or “Accept your neighbor as well as you accept yourself.” Love is the Law. With all my heart I dislike conflict. With all my heart I love God. Sometimes I need to use all my heart, soul, mind and strength to show it.
As I was brushing my teeth Sunday morning, I heard “you know you’re not going to give the sermon you prepared. You’re going to give the one I prepared for you.” And so the carefully crafted message ready to go in my binder was replaced by an on the fly message about unconditional love and the goodness of God and our calling to show both to EVERYONE, always, period. Otherwise, how do you differ from anyone else in “the world?” You don’t. That’s the rub.
Here’s the bottom line: I have ministered to people in prison but I’ve never been accused of believing their crime was not a crime. I have ministered to a patient who attempted suicide more than once and never had anyone tell me that the only reason I did was because I think suicide is a great idea. And I’ve walked with families dealing with alcoholism and drug addiction and the effects that has on everyone and never had a finger wagged at me followed by the assertion that I must have done it because I have no issue with alcohol consumption to the extreme or recreational drug use and the adverse effects it causes. Never. Not once. But stand up for people who are hurting for one very specific controversial difficult uncomfortable all the way around reason and suddenly I’m accused of dismissing broken rules with wagging finger and scowling face. I was accused of not knowing what I was doing in that moment. And they were right. I don’t know why Jesus wanted me to “just stand”. I don’t know what Jesus is doing. But hear me. I no more dismiss sins of deception than I dismiss sins of dereliction or omission. We know that all of these led to where we are. We know where we are. We need to figure out where God is leading us from here. And that’s hard to do when we’re so busy watching one another that we don’t look for (or listen for) Jesus.
We know what we want to have happen. I’m as human as you are. And it’s just as hard for me to hear the whistle, stop, and say (and mean it) not my will but God’s will matters here. Folks, you don’t want to live in a world where Theresa’s will is all that matters. I don’t think I want to live in that world. But we have to make a choice at some point to be a part of the problem or a part of the solution and that can take us to a very uncomfortable and sometimes lonely place. And the solution isn’t OUR solution. It must be God’s solution. And that can be a very confusing place sometimes. It is for me, anyway. All I can do is what Jesus leads me to do.
I shared during the children’s story last Sunday how Peter and John were jailed after healing a lame man in Jesus’ name. They were warned by the legal experts not to talk about that Jesus ever again. Peter’s and John’s response was this; if I must choose between pleasing legal experts or pleasing God, I will choose to please God and never stop.
I know that I disappointed some and pleased others by the simple act of standing up. That wasn’t my intent. I’ve had different people tell me their opinion of my intent, their view of what I was doing.
I did what I was led by Spirit to do without argument, debate or question. I teach every Sunday that you should pay attention to the nudges of Spirit and respond accordingly. What a hypocrite I would be if I dared not to practice as I preach. Know that I will always try to respond to Spirit leading in whatever way it presents itself.
When I meet Jesus one day I would rather hear him say, “Theresa, you just may have loved people a little too much” than to see pain in his eyes as I hear the words “Theresa, you didn’t love my people enough.” Maybe it’s my age. Maybe it’s deepening of faith, but I don’t care what people “think” of me nearly as much as what Jesus knows to be true about me.
With hands to plow,