Yesterday, I had my grandson Cy riding with me on the tractor. I say to him, “Cy, I thought this would be a good time to talk about your future”. Cy is a loquacious 4 and change. I say to him, “Cy, when you grow up are you going to Princeton or Harvard?”
“Papa, when I grow up, I’m going to ride Black Beauty.” I love that, don’t understand the question, answer a question you do understand. Framing the debate is more than half the battle.
I let the little fella down on. His eight year old sister is skating her first skate on the pond which is beautifully frozen over. He runs across the pond and flying eagle tackles her on her skates. I come over and say, “Cy, I saw you tackle your sister. Can you go tell her that you are sorry.”
He sighs and says, “Okay Papa.” He looks up at me, my Catholic grandson, and says, “Papa, we don’t need to tell God about this do we?”
I look back at him and say, “Cy, have I ever shown you the secret fraternity hand shake?” He looks at me, “No”. I shake his hand and get this look like, “Papa, you de man.”
You probably know that Christians originally chose to celebrate the birth of Jesus during the Roman festival of Saturnalia, the mid-winter week long feast of food and alcohol, during the shortest days of the year that looked forward to the beginning of the return of spring. The birth of Jesus was depicted as a kind of star of hope on the horizon, just after the darkest day of the year that beckons forth a new hope next year, a new hope that will grow in the spring and come to full harvest in the future.
We tell this story that God loves us. When the shepherds came in wonder, when the smartest priests who were also the smartest scientists and mathematicians in their day, came in search of a star, they brought their ideas about God. They came looking for “The director of the heavens who holds the key to the fate of each individual life”; they came looking for “the great power that enrages the sea and causes volcanoes.” They came looking for the one behind nature that can give us miraculous cures for our failing health. They came looking for the great Mind behind the complex, inscrutable universe that puzzles us limited humans. What did they find on their esoteric quest? They found the love of a Mother for her infant. Whatever else we thought God must be or has to be, God came to us with the healing, hopeful response that behind the math, behind the physics, behind the complex mystery that befuddles us, there is love.
We won’t know everything but in spite of that be trusting because God is love fundamentally. And God wants for us to become what we are to be in our fullness. God is a comfort, a joy, a compassion. God cares about you and what you are going through. God loves you and you and you.
Love is really wonderful. A principal in Newark was telling me about a woman in his school from Guatemala. She cleans houses in Short Hills and has been in our country for about 5 years. She lives in a falling down section of Newark because that is all she can afford. She stood out, in the Principal’s mind, because she is always there with her son Luis. She has Luis in crisp clean clothes for school every day. From day one at school, she made Luis introduce himself to the Principal and to his teacher, shake their hands, and say, “Good morning.”
Despite the broken community around her, she was intent on filling that boy with discipline, a sense of respect, a love for learning. Luis was her project and her love for that boy filled him, day in and day out, with the character to rise above his situation and make a better life for himself. He was blooming.
Or the teacher in the wonderful movie Music of the Heart, about a classical musician that began teaching in a school district in Harlem at a school that had never had a music program. She encounters all of the brokenness that poverty brings to a community… no resources, social anarchy, kids with attitudes, children acting out as a full time occupation, ridicule.
Her first students are the marginal kids because music, of course, is not cool to the cool kids in the Hood. But she stays with it, teaching them violin. Over the course of time, she gets to know some of the parents, begins to understand some of the special burdens that are laid upon the poor, makes some changes to accommodate other students. Shortly, she has a parent here and there, stopping her and asking her plaintively, “Will you teach my child?” The class grows, the kids develop the habits, and this new dimension of their personality begins to grow, the part that appreciates beauty. And as they develop talent, they have a newfound sense of self-esteem, self-respect. Cornell West says that the greatest spiritual damage that poverty wreaks upon people caught in the Hood is a culture of lovelessness that makes people unable to love or respect themselves. Day by day, this teacher was reversing that trend. She was giving them a way to develop self-respect, self-esteem, to create and participate in beauty.
One day, she decides that the children need a goal to work towards and she figures out what they need to do to play in Carnegie Hall, just a few dozen blocks south, but a whole world away. All of the kids get pumped. The parents become galvanized. Eventually, all the parents and all the kids have to get organized and raise some money to make this all happen. Community Spirit just blossoms in their midst. That self-respect and self-esteem have some contagious radial consequences. Parents start to care, start to get involved, start to take on some responsibilities and themselves get caught up in this positive energy. Way leads to way, and the next thing you know, the higher reasons for which we were born start to become manifest.
And they get to Carnegie Hall and they sound marvelous. Audience claps, then they stand. And then the parents just break out in fuller more raucous celebration. You see these kids drink in the blessing. The best thing is that they finally get to say to themselves, “I’m really here. I belong here”. It opens up a whole new world.
Love is like that. Love blooms people into their fullness. Love is patient. Love is kind; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on doing things only one way; it is not irritable or resentful. Love rejoices in small signs that things are going right and does not glower over setbacks great or small. Love is capable of bearing a great weight of responsibility. Love believes when there is no evidence around us that belief is warranted. Love is hope filled; it can endure to the end….Faith, hope, and love abide… But the fullest of these is love.
Love expands our sense of compassion, one of the principal themes of the Christmas story. It allows us to love people we don’t know well, remembering that God loves all of us. I remember reading an article in the New Yorker more than a decade ago from a reporter that was in Sarajevo when it broke out in ethnic violence.
There was an American who was in the city one day when sniper fire erupted. He saw a young girl get hit and fall to the ground. A man ran into the middle of the road and picked her up. The American had a car, so he jumped in, drove over to the man and said, “Get in. I will take you to the hospital.”
They started to head for the hospital. On the way the man holding the girl in the back seat on his lap said, “Hurry mister, she is still alive.”
A little while later he said, “hurry mister, she is still breathing.” He drove faster.
A few moments later he said, “Hurry, she is still warm.”
They got to the hospital, turned the child over to the doctors. The man said, “Hurry please. She is getting cold.”
They brought her inside, got her to the medical team and the medical team pronounced her dead. The two men were leaden in distress and they stood together over a sink, washing the blood from their hands. The man who had carried the young girl had tears in his eyes. He said, “I don’t know how I am going to tell her father that she is dead.”
The American was astonished. He said, “I thought she was your child.”
The man looked back at him and said, “Aren’t they all.”
That is the way God looks at it. They are all God’s children. “No one has ever seen God” says I John, “if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us.”
“Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and are indifferent towards their neighbors, are liars; for those who do not love the neighbor whom they have seen, cannot love the God whom they have not seen.”
Love takes us out further in compassion than we imagined we might and it also makes us deeper, sturdier when in our closest relationships.
They give us the confidence and acceptance to find our dreams and live them. The great baseball player Jackie Robinson… His wife Rachel and he had a profound love life together and they raised three children as well.
Jackie Robinson was a terrific athlete and an important role model in American history as the first black baseball player in the major leagues. Jackie Robinson had to endure not only the insults and humiliation that was hurled against him at the time, he was always on stage, always in the public eye. And there were some people that were waiting for him to fall. No matter how much you love the game, that is a lot of spiritual pressure to live under.
And Jackie had the pressure that generation of black leaders had to go through of being the first at this, the first at that. He couldn’t just be ordinary. I’m sure he internalized a standard of excellence just knowing that so much was on the line for his people as well as himself.
Rachel gave him the confidence and the courage to endure and become all that he became. He once wrote of her, “Strong, loving, gentle and brave, never afraid to either criticize or comfort.” Great relationships are like that. They are a team effort. Jackie might have been the one that had his name on the marquee but when you talk to the Robinson kids it was a team effort. There wasn’t Jackie without Rachel.
Mo Vaughn, the first baseman for the Boston Red Sox, wore #42 on his jersey in honor of Jackie Robinson… He once said “Jackie Robinson couldn’t have been Jackie Robinson if it wasn’t for Rachel Robinson… He wanted to quit. She wouldn’t let him.” That is what we hope, that we will be an inspiration for each other, a quiet confidence that blooms each other, that makes us sturdier, makes us deep.
Arthur Aron, a psychologist at SUNY has done a simple experiment that shows how important it is to be present with one another. He takes random couples and puts them in pairs. In the experiment, they are asked to do things together, each of them has to give directions so that each of them have to follow one another in turn. In addition, they have to share some important personal information with each other. Finally, he has them stop and look into one another’s eyes for a full two minutes. Two minutes is a long time to look at each other. What do you think he finds? He finds that a high percentage of these total strangers report feelings of attraction to one another.[iii] Try it at home, not with a stranger, but with your spouse and let us know. This is not rocket science but we have to be intentional about paying attention to one another. It is like Arnold Schwarzenagger says about body building, “You have to put in the time.”
I think that one of the reasons we have this festival of peace is to give you the chance to put in some face time. And it is important to be strong for each other, to make each other sturdy, especially when we are going through hardship and difficulty.
A few years ago, I took one of our Field Education students with me to the hospital. One of our church members was there who was about to be discharged to go home because the doctors couldn’t do any more for him. Our student said something to him about how awful it must be and he waved that off with, ‘I’ve had a great life. When I think of everything I been able to see and do, all the opportunities I’ve had, don’t cry for me…’ We chatted about this and that. I closed with a word of prayer. I put one hand on his head, held his hand. We prayed, we said ‘Amen’, and this man still had hold of my hand in a pretty tight grip for another minute or so. My Field Ed student was watching the two of us sharing a grip in silence.
We walked out and the student commented on how he held on to my hand. I said, “Yes, it is not easy to let go of the life that you love. What a privilege to be on the supporting end of that grip.”
“Socrates had it wrong; it is not simply the unexamined life but finally the uncommitted life that is not worth living. Decartes too was mistaken; “Cogito Ergo Sum- I think therefore I am? Nonsense, it is not mere rationality. Amo ergo sum- I love therefore I am. Or, as with unconscious eloquence St. Paul wrote, “Now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” Spread the love.
So as you go, remember that the point of the season is that it leads us to embody and spread the love, to friends, to our funky extended families, to our colleagues, to the strangers that the Good Lord just might place in your way, to the war torn, to the desolate, to those in pain and want. Reach out. Open up. Give. Receive. I close with a prayer from St. Patrick that I found in Ireland.
Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me.
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger. Amen