High school was an amazing time. We lived in a row house in a blue-collar neighborhood (steel town) in the early 70s, with a tremendously varied population, mostly Eastern European Catholics and a growing African-American population. The parochial schools I attended through sixth grade were small and pretty narrowly filled. One was a Slovak congregation, and the other Lithuanian. Imagine my awe and fright when in 7th grade I entered South High School, 7-12. To me it was huge and amazing and scary all at the same time. Thankfully I had my older cousin and her friends to help me make the transition, as well as my closest friend and cousin, the same age, to walk the journey together.
As the years passed, I did what I am still known for doing–I worked hard to get the top grades, joined organizations and tried to create new ones, and I made friends, lots of them, from all over the population of the school. There were kids from Catholic school, the high achievers, the “I’m here, but don’t ask too much more” group, and the “yeah, so I’ll show up from time to time” group. It was interesting keeping the balance between all of these and keeping up my grades, but a few things hurt me during that time.
All teenagers want to “fit in.” My parents understood that, but they were very protective, and they kept pretty good tabs on where I was going and who I would be with. Helpful. On the other hand, to fit in with my rarely there or sometimes there friends at school, I started skipping classes from time to time. We never did anything to get in trouble outside of the building, just hung out at the park or the candy store or pizza shop. And I worked twice as hard to be sure I finished all my school work and kept my grades up. Not really helpful. During my senior year, while still carrying all As for my work, two of my teachers decided to make an example of my absences and dropped my grades to the bottom of the range. It wasn’t fair, I cried. My parents considered making me quit my after school job at McDonalds. I really wasn’t allowed out with friends anymore. And I lost my bid for valedictorian. For the next semester I worked extra hard to bring those grades back up, and by the time I graduated they were As once again.
Why do I share this all now? Because I’m still that person. I’m still a high achiever, wanting to do the best I can in most things I do (sans housekeeping and yard work!). I’m still a creative thinker and problem solver. And I still have lots of friends from many areas of life, by whom I am blessed constantly. There are my friends and colleagues from all over the religious and political gamut, nationality list, and racial spectrum; lower-, middle-, and upper-class, and every age you can think of. These contacts, friends, co-workers, and acquaintances, fill my life with information, energy, laughter, sometimes tears and frustration, and challenge, and help God form me into the person God has planned for me to become.
But just as in high school, navigating this stew of organizations, individuals, backgrounds, and ideologies can take its toll. While they stretch and challenge me, there are times when I find myself drawn into ideas and movements because of energy without taking time to think them through. I have realized that before I take a step, speak out, I need to find my center, my balance, the place where I am faithful not to my network, but to where God is leading me.
If you take a look at my Facebook feed, you’ll see evidence of that stew I talked about earlier–all over the spectrum. It used to be even more so. At first I was hesitant about blocking people or posts. I didn’t want to offend anyone. I wanted to stay friends so my faith and life might affect others as they affected me. It didn’t take long to realize that wasn’t working, and I found ways to block certain posts that contained hateful or sexual or just not helpful items. Then my “friends” started arguing with one another about posts I made or shared, you know, the right and the left and the in-between. Yikes! What to do?
I like living in this place of mixture, of blending, of movement, bringing the neighborhood together, starting conversations, looking at all sides of the argument. Even so, I’ve been reminded about foundations, starting points, presuppositions. I’ve examined myself and decided that these are mine.
- I am a believer in Jesus Christ and in the Bible. I find guidance and strength in the words on those pages and through the voice of the Spirit of God leading and guiding me.
- My thoughts are not God’s thoughts, and I find it necessary to step back and compare mine to what God has expressed. “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts'” (Isaiah 55:8-9, NIV).
- My way is not the only way to live, although I am steadfast in my faith beliefs. There are other lifestyles, faiths, and approaches to life that I might not find helpful to me or choose for myself, but which I must respect and seek to understand.
- The Bible teaches that every person has value and significance. Black or white or yellow or anything in between, rich or poor or just doing good, highly moral, addicted, criminal, or profane, etc., no person is more or less valuable in society or to God.
- Hatred, for any reason, is not a fruit of the Spirit or an acceptable approach to any person or group, regardless of their beliefs, political stance, or actions. This political season is evidence of that. Matthew 5:43-45 (NIV): “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”
- Anger might be an honest response, but acting out on anger without reasoned thought (see above) or injuring persons, groups, or communities verbally, physically, or economically because of my anger cannot stand.
- I cannot give dignity back to one person/group by taking another’s. The only way to equality is to bring everyone up, not tear others down. While there may be a struggle to get there, movement must be forward, with the goal of helping all, not hurting some.
- Fear is not a place to live, especially in community. Are there things to fear? Definitely. Is there danger? Sometimes, yes. However, living in fear of others not only hurts me, it entraps me into non-reasoning, reactionary thinking. Fear is not my ally but only an invitation to think through a problem and find a step forward. 1 John 4:18, in The Message, says, “There is no room in love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear. Since fear is crippling, a fearful life—fear of death, fear of judgment—is one not yet fully formed in love.”
- By my example and my words, I will not spread fear, but hope, even when it seems there is none to be found. In the face of devastation and unfairness, I will hope in the work of God in individual hearts to turn to love, to peace, in spite of what I see.
- Answers will never be instant. All journeys take many steps, ups and downs, turns right and left, and even back for a season. I will try to stay calm, to listen and think, then act. I want to look at all sides, gather all the information, and even then take my time in moving to be sure that my steps will not cause harm.
- I am not the Savior. Period. The world and its ills do not rest on my shoulders alone. I am only a piece of the awkwardly shaped, strangely designed puzzle, albeit an important piece, as is every other person and every other thought. I don’t know everything, and again, my perspective isn’t the end-all.
- First and foremost, I will use my voice to share the message of faith and hope, but in that message, I must speak for all that the Bible calls for: love of God’s creation, care for my neighbor, freedom from fear and hopelessness, and dignity of the person.
- While I may be used as a voice for others, I will remember that I cannot be an effective voice for others if I have not heard from them, if I am taking their pain as my own and reacting in frustration and anger, if I make it about me and not about the other, and if I segregate those who disagree.
- Finally, I will choose to live in hope and faith that each day will bring another step toward God’s kingdom, toward peace. Though each step may be small, I will not despise small beginnings or steps, but strive to live in faith instead of dread, hope instead of fear, love instead of hate. “Does anyone dare despise this day of small beginnings? They’ll change their tune when they see Zerubbabel setting the last stone in place!” (Zechariah 4:10, The Message).
I suppose if I boiled all of these down to one thought, it would be my feeble and often-failing commitment to love, not just my spouse, my family, my friends–however varied they may be, but to love my neighbors, nearby and across the world. Love like that isn’t mine, but something God is working in me, day by day, moment by moment, decision by decision.
I’m thankful for all of my friends, and I hope you all will stick in there with me, continuing the conversation, seeking out ways to make the world better for everyone, not just our side or group. You see, in the end, it isn’t our politics that will make things better, though it might help. It isn’t just our protests or votes that will make the difference, although they are important. We can keep our own beliefs and ideologies while accepting others and treating them with respect, consideration, forgiveness, and partnership to find a better way, even if they treat us badly. This country, this world will only change when we love one another with the love that God has shown to each of us. “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh [thoughts, feelings, ideologies, backgrounds, emotions]; rather, serve one another humbly in love” (Galatians 5:18, NIV, expansion mine).