Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Shoulders of a Seminarian

In the days that have passed since my most recent visit home to the foothills of the Blue Ridge, I've been thinking a great deal about the inestimable value of the human shoulder. I'm not normally given to pondering the mysteries of the human body, but a profoundly emotional moment at the altar rail during the Eucharist pushed musings on shoulders to the fore.

At an altar I have visited countless times in my life, I knelt to receive the bread and wine - and almost immediately I was overcome by emotion, to the point that I cried. Yes, part of it was the feeling of being back in a place that means so much to me, one that was a root from which grew the person that I am today. More than that, though, it was the feeling I got while kneeling at the rail - the sensation that the hands of those I knew in that church, men and women whose friendship and support sustains me today as well as those who have long since passed on and are now the subject of wonderful memories, were all placed on me. All at once, in that moment, they each laid their hands on my shoulders, silent, unheard prayers of blessing and encouragement from those who were and continue to be guides and companions, at moments great and small, in my journey to the seminary.

Shoulders are of great significance in both the Old and New Testaments. They were used to carry water jars in Genesis 2 and sheep in Luke 15. They have borne the burden of man's laws in Matthew 23 and the weight of Assyrian oppression in Isaiah 14. And they carried the weight of messianic power and responsibility as prophesied in Isaiah 9. Throughout history, we have put our shoulders to the wheel; Isaac Newton said that success in his life was only the result of "standing on the shoulders of giants;" W.H. Auden said that "every American poet feels that the whole responsibility for contemporary poetry has fallen upon his shoulders."

In the months since beginning my first year at seminary, I have seen the true power and significance of shoulders in my friends and classmates. They have been a place for them lay their heads at stressful moments. They have been the landing point for many tears of frustration and anxiety. They have been a support for those recovering from brief moments of physically frailty and pain. More than anything else, however, they have been a place to receive arms thrown around them in joy and celebration as we have each shared in the many wonderfully profound and Spirit-filled moments experienced each day.

Our natural inclination is to view shoulders as necessary for carrying weight or bearing burdens. For me, that is a glass half-empty; shoulders carry so much more. They carry the love of friends and family; they carry the hopes of our church; they carry the dreams for our future. And as I learned first-hand at the altar in that small, beloved country church, a hand on a shoulder is a sign of blessing from all those whom God has chosen to weave into the thread of our lives.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Fifty Years On, the Lessons of Selma are Still Being Learned

I was not born in Selma, Alabama, nor did I live there (although I was married at the Episcopal church there, in 1996). I did not take part in the Selma to Montgomery march, being born five years too late. I was not there to express outrage at the discriminatory tactics taken by Sheriff Jim Clark to block blacks from exercising their constitutional right to register to vote. I did not witness the brutality of the state police against the marchers at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. I was not able to mourn the deaths of Jimmie Lee Jackson or James Reeb.

But as I sat in a theater today watching the outstanding and powerful new film "Selma," I wept - and my tears encompassed all the sorrow and outrage that, while missed in March 1965, are just as real and just as raw for many today as they were 50 years ago. Equally present, sadly, is the need for many to learn the lessons of justice and reconciliation that are strong threads running through what Dr. King called "the moral arc of the universe."

There is much that has changed. In just two generations, the racial slurs that I can recall one of my grandfathers using in front of me, even in my very early years, have been replaced by the joy of two young daughters who have friends based on love and the ability to share good times together and not upon skin color or background. My wife and I have taught them the importance of honoring and respecting the equal worth of every man, woman, and child. We have talked to them about the important rights prayed and fought for by men like Dr. King, John Lewis - a personal hero of mine and someone I am honored to have met - and millions of other men and women, and why they should be remembered.

Despite all we have done, however, how do we find the words to explain why people like Michael Brown, Wenjian Liu, and Rafael Ramos die so needlessly? How do we talk to them about why there are so many people in the world who have a difficult time accepting and loving as easily as they do? Why have they been taught to forgive and yet see others who cannot, who will not, accept, nor love, nor forgive?

On Christmas 1957, Dr. King delivered a sermon on love and forgiveness that I think is very applicable. He said,

This simply means that there is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies. When we look beneath the surface, beneath. the impulsive evil deed, we see within our enemy-neighbor a measure of goodness and know that the viciousness and evilness of his acts are not quite representative of all that he is. We see him in a new light. We recognize that his hate grows out of fear, pride, ignorance, prejudice, and misunderstanding, but in spite of this, we know God's image is ineffably etched in being. Then we love our enemies by realizing that they are not totally bad and that they are not beyond the reach of God's redemptive love.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Selma march, as we remember those who were and are oppressed, those who struggled and fought and fight still, who lived and died so that the future might be born anew, all in the name of equality and justice, I pray that the Pettus Bridge is remembered not only as a symbol of how many steps we as a nation have walked, but how many miles we still have to go. May the lessons of Selma go on, and may the bridge serve as a tool for crossing the divide that still exists and bending the moral arc completely back to justice, equality, and reconciliation.