One Lane, Both Ways
And serve each other according to the gift each person has received, as good managers of God’s diverse gifts.
-1 Peter 4:10
The Isle of Mull off the west coast of Scotland is a breathtaking world of rugged beauty and island isolation. And with only a 3,000 person populace over 340 square miles, people get to know one another pretty well. I've never been there, but it's compelling enough to be on my bucket list.
There's a unique feature about the island roads on Mull. Nearly all the roads have only one narrow lane. They pass through mountains and along rocky coastlines, weaving their way in and out of towns. About every 500 yards is a small pullover, big enough for one car. When cars meet, someone has to pull over. And sometimes, someone has to do a little backing up to make way for their approaching neighbor. That requires some real skill.
That means that all movement on Mull is a constant negotiation between people. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas, who loves to travel to Mull, makes an observation about this need for what he calls "cooperative trust". Because of the narrow roads, island life is a constant give-and-take. He says that if you stay on the island for long, you begin to realize that the people all have a sense of each other's strengths and weaknesses, because they have learned to negotiate well for years with each other. They know when to move forward and when to back up.
Hauerwas also points out that this "cooperative trust" is the exact thing that we have attempted to eliminate from our American lives. We don't want to slow down and pull over for others. And we don't want to have to be humbly grateful for someone else pulling over on our behalf to let us pass. We'd rather each have our own paved lanes and live productively at fast speeds, without needing cooperative relationships.
And yet this is so much of the core of what makes us human, and the core of what it means to live as disciples of Jesus. Learning to trust one another and make space for one another is one way that love becomes tangible in our world. A life deeply formed in Christ sees another not as a nuisance or an asset to our own movement, but as a fellow image-bearer of God who gives me an opportunity to learn love simply by being with me. Perhaps my friend likes to talk a little too much. Jesus can teach me to be a more patient listener. Perhaps I have the tendency to talk too much. Jesus can teach me to ask good questions and put my friend's needs before my own. Perhaps my friend has a unique gift that I don't. I can ask for their assistance and freely offer mine in areas that I'm capable. And cooperative trust emerges.
Within the church, cooperative trust like this is beautiful. I begin to make space for you and learn what your needs and strengths are, as you learn mine. Sometimes it will work beautifully together, and sometimes we'll meet head to head and we have to learn how to back up a little bit so that we don't block the way for each other. Cooperation is humility, because we realize that we are sharing this road. And we did not build this road, nor do we own it. We inherited it, and it will last after we are gone. So we we joyfully and willingly encourage each other's travels, knowing that it is a gift to be able to move slowly sometimes, because Jesus is with us on the journey and at the destination. And life with Jesus is the goal, so there is no need to rush past each other or run one another over. It's quite the opposite.
But that may be easier on Mull, where everything has to be slower. For most of us today, a life of slow, cooperative community will feel out of place in a fast paced world. Asking one another for help will feel out of place in a fiercely independent world. Pulling over to care for someone else will feel radical in an efficiency-and-achievement obsessed world.
But Jesus pulled over time and time again. Jesus saw the people in front of him and made space. Sometimes he challenged, sometimes he was gentle. But he was always seeking to help them keep moving, often at great cost to himself. May it be so in our own hearts today as well.
Jesus, give me discernment about when to move forward, and when to pull over for the sake of my brothers and sisters. Teach me to build cooperative trust in my relationships.
So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.
-Jesus making it clear(ish), Matthew 7:12
(Warning... some sarcasm is present throughout this piece)
The world would be a better place if everyone was a bit more in tune with the Golden Rule, wouldn't it? If everyone would simply treat others the way that they want to be treated, then we would all be safe and happy and cared for! Well, mostly. There's just one challenge with how we often think about this important statement of Jesus.
What happens when what you would have them do to you..... isn't at all what your neighbor actually wants done to them?
If that confused you, consider this real life example.
We're in the wacky, in-between, sometimes-awkward-and-also-really-beautiful season of emerging from a year defined only by the pandemic. Mouths are visible again and we can smile at each other (or at least tell if someone was actually smiling at us or just doing the nice eye thing this whole time while keeping the scowl beneath the cloth). And hugs! In many spaces, we can give hugs again, which everyone wants! Right???
Since we've finally begun regathering as a church a few weeks ago, one of the things we decided to do was have a pile of yellow silicone wristbands at the table near the entrance. If someone chooses to wear a yellow wristband, it means that they are more comfortable maintaining some distance, and not having physical touch. That way we can honor each other without creating uncomfortable situations. In fact, believe it or not, some folks were uncomfortable with social physical contact even before Covid! In light of this, assumptions like "everyone wants a hug" can actually feel very unloving to a lot of people... and very much not in the spirit of Jesus' golden rule.
Now some of us may have trouble understanding this reality. It may strike us as silly or unnecessary or hypersensitive. I mean, if I treated everyone how I wanted to be treated, I'd give out hugs to everyone and everyone would feel loved and the world would be awesome. Plus, I'd be directly obeying Jesus' command!
Ironically, an attitude like that still places ourselves at the center, rather than the one we are actually seeking to love. When we make unconscious assumptions that everyone thinks and feels like us, we can actually be very unloving in our behavior toward others... and this goes well beyond hugs and wristbands.
But rather than simply disregarding the words of Jesus, the solution is for us to broaden our interpretation of these words from a list of actions to the spirit in which we act. That makes Jesus' command even more central in our lives, not less.
Let's consider the spirit of what we all want. We want to be treated with deep respect. Most everyone wants their desires to be acknowledged and honored. We want to be listened to, to have our complex experiences validated by others, and to not have assumptions made about us. We want to feel empowered and we want to feel comfortable in our own unique personalities.
How that looks specifically is going to play out differently for people. So loving our neighbor as ourselves means less about treating them specifically how we want to be treated, and more about treating them as they desire to be treated (within the Christlike ethics of love, of course). This fulfills the true spirit of the law that Jesus is speaking of, which is loving our neighbor. Asking my friend, "are you cool with a hug?" and totally respecting him when he says, "not really, thanks " is one way to show Christlike love.
And the layers continue. When we consider friends who have different cultural/racial/religious backgrounds, we break down barriers and build trust when we practice the slow process of learning what loving and caring actions look like for them-- because they may be very different than what you assume. This is the epitome of other-oriented, Christlike love. It takes humility, because sometimes you will learn that one of your statements or actions felt very unloving to someone, even though that wasn't your intent. And in humility, you can change it the next time around and love them better.
The bonus? Learning this way of life will transform your own character into a more humble and considerate person as well.
What assumptions might you be making about other people? What questions do you need to ask to create a loving environment for them? Where might their experience of love look different than what yours is?
Jesus, help me become perceptive and sensitive to the individuals around me, so that my ways of showing love truly feel like love to those receiving it.
We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians, and opened wide our hearts to you.
- 2 Corinthians 6:11
Writer Anne Lamott recently wrote about a conversation with a stand up comedian friend of hers. He told her that when people meet him, most of the time they are actually meeting his bodyguard.
I'm thinking about that this morning.
The bodyguard is the self in front of the real self. It's the first layer of defense to the vulnerable soft skin of our humanity. Consider bodyguards for a moment. They travel with celebrities, going ahead of them and behind them and making sure that no harm will come to them. But they can also stick too close, making it difficult for authentic interactions with others. The bodyguard gets in the way of vulnerability and creates a barrier to honest, personal connection.
We all have a bodyguard self that walks along with us and comes to the front in different scenarios. We all have moments where our truest self is held back a bit, for protection or ego or comfort or convenience. There are so many reasons. The bodyguard self sometimes sees things in very black and white terms, because the messy gray areas of life are complicated and require more in-depth connection with others. The bodyguard can offer a quick label of, "good or bad" and immediately direct us to treat people accordingly.
I think times of exhaustion and upheaval can change how much our bodyguard shows up in our interactions. In trauma or pain, our bodyguard can move to front and center. It smiles at people, creates small talk, and moves on. And the vulnerable spirit behind is kept unaffected.
But pain and heartache can also break down our bodyguard, sending it away. Our souls have already been laid bare; keeping up appearances is far too much work. In our pain we learn to be at peace with our vulnerability, imperfection, and losses. We let others in.
What has this year done to your bodyguard? The pandemic, the isolation, the addiction to social and news media, and the added stressors of daily life can build up or break down our walls of protection. Is your bodyguard more or less active on this side?
Let's be clear: vulnerability isn't appropriate for every interaction. Not everyone needs to be invited into our interior lives, and there are times that it is healthy to protect ourselves from emotionally unsafe environments. But if that is the constant default, life will be so very exhausting, and we will live at arm's length from others. Jesus invites us into something better.
The Church (or the Society of Jesus as I like to think of it) should be a place where bodyguards are increasingly unnecessary in our lives. If we believe, as Jesus told Paul, that God's grace is sufficient, then the doors of our true selves should be able to open to one another. Imagine a church gathering where everyone has a bodyguard standing in front and behind them. Imagine attempting to love one another well, listen to one another, and encourage one another... when you can't even really see the one you're speaking with. What an unfortunate picture! And yet, the experience of so many is that church is the place where honesty and vulnerability are more dangerous than anywhere else. What a tragic failure in God's family.
When Paul writes to the Corinthian church, he shares with them that he and his companions "opened wide our hearts to you." I find that phrase to be infinitely beautiful, and something to always aspire to.
The more secure we become in how infinitely loved we are, the more we have the ability to open wide our hearts to others. And my goodness, we are loved so infinitely.
It's possible that traveling behind your bodyguard has become your primary way of life. And perhaps, Jesus is inviting you to step forward with others in a new way. Maybe it's just one person, maybe it's a smaller group, or maybe it's learning to interact with a new layer of authenticity with people as a whole.
But to move toward a culture where we have honest, transformational interactions, we have to be a part of establishing it for others as well. Consider the little statements you make, the small assumptions or labels you might use when talking about things. Do your words make others bring out their bodyguards when interacting with you? Today, let's use words of graciousness with hearts wide open, so that those around us can give their bodyguard some time off.
Jesus, help me live in the freedom of your grace today, while truly opening my heart to others as well.
Cicadas and Socrates
How many are your works, Lord!
In wisdom you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures!
You had to know that a cicada post was coming one of these weeks, right?
If you live in the mid-atlantic region like many of us, then chances are you have experienced cicada mania this month. (similar to Beatlemania, but without the great hair). And if you live in a different part of the country, then it's likely you've heard the news stories. Billions of Brood X periodical cicadas have emerged from the ground to take up residence in our... everywheres. They've been underground for nearly two decades, and after 17 years they want to experience all that the above ground world has to offer. And they are getting all up in our business.
They aren't here to hurt you. Some of you are terrified of them (that's ok) and some of you are fascinated by them (that's ok too) and some of you are collecting them in buckets and dying their empty shells blue with berry juice (that's a little excessive, kids). But if you live anywhere near trees or lawns, they're hard to miss. And then there's the sound. A constant humming is always noticeable around the clock right now. Sometimes it's so loud around our house that it sounds like a distant ambulance forgot to turn off its siren. Their music defies labels. It feels like it's always building. There are choruses within the choruses, pulsing in many parts, yet one sound.
They've spent 17 years living underground, just waiting for these 6 weeks of flying, mating, laying eggs.... and singing. If you waited so long to emerge, wouldn't you want to sing around the clock as well?
It's as if the cicadas know that they are fully alive, with a short time to live, and they refuse to live silently.
Socrates was really into cicadas, at least according to the (likely fictionalized) conversations Plato wrote about his former teacher. In Plato's Phaedrus dialogue, Socrates makes a note of the spot that his friend has picked for their conversation: “How lovely and perfectly charming the breeziness of the place is! And it resounds with the shrill summer music of the chorus of cicadas.”
Socrates believed the lore that cicadas were of divine origin. They were once human beings so filled with delight that they sang and sang, neglecting food or water, until they died and returned as these messengers. They continued to sing constantly and bring a report back to the Muses of the most honorable humans who were concerned with divine and noble thoughts and actions. In the above conversation, Socrates is intentional to speak of valuable and honorable things with his partner within earshot of the cicadas so that “perhaps they will be pleased and give us the gift which the gods bestowed on them to give to men.”
That's super weird. I don't believe any of that.
But this idea that the cicadas sang constant praise to (g)od, and bragged about the beauty of other humans... that's interesting to me. What if I heard the cicadas in that spirit? What if it inspired me to do the same?
What if I lived like my time here is brief and valuable and worth making noise in all the right ways?
Though I believe that I will live forever with Jesus at the renewal of all things, I still long for these years of my life, birthed out of the dust and before returning to the dust... to be a resurrection song, much like the cicadas. I want it to be bursting with sound.
I want to be so aware of the fragile gift of life and the sacredness of those around me that I am constantly singing praises to God, and constantly reporting publicly about the beauty that I see in the people as they bear God's image. Why do we have such a tendency to do the opposite of both of those things? Complaints about life and complaints about others can dominate our waking hours.
Far too often, like the story Jesus tells of the seed that fell among thorns, worry and stress rob us of the joy of singing freely. We become distracted and forget the gift of life that we've been given and the gift of salvation we have in Christ. In our stress we become more critical of others instead of more complimentary of the beauty we see in them (there is beauty in everyone). And we remain far too quiet in this brief time we're given, instead of singing our hearts out (note: extroverts and introverts will practice this is vastly different ways).
This may be an odd image for you today. But what would it look like for you to hear the constant hum, or see the cicadas flying around you, or simply notice the abundant sunshine of the approaching summer.... and begin praising God more fully than ever before for the gift of life? How might that transform how you relate to your neighbor, your brother, your child, or your coworker? This week, let's delight that Jesus has given us new life, and let's love accordingly.
Jesus, stir my spirit to rejoice in you and speak in praise of others.