When my daughter Lydia was in high school we didn’t really talk much. We spent time together but we didn’t really talk. In fact, I used to joke that the words she most often spoke to me during her teen-age years were, “Dad, is mom there?” and that was over the telephone. When we did pass each other of a morning or of an evening, I would always ask, “How are you doing green eyes?” And she would smile and say, “Just fine.”
A few year later, I discovered that she really wasn’t doing all that well back then and one day I asked, “Why didn’t you say something about what you were going through when I asked each day?” She replied, “Daddy, I just told you what I knew you wanted to hear.” It hurt but she was right. That is what I wanted to hear.
I think most people would prefer to maintain the polite illusion that all is good and well…until we can’t any longer. But there always comes a time when justice demands that the truth must be spoken. Some things are plain wrong and must be named, or what is and what has always been, is what will always be. And that conversation is often difficult and jagged at best, angry and polarizing at worst. We saw many such occasions in 2020 and there may be more in 2021: Times when the volcano blows and the lava flows and creates a magma river and you have no real idea where any of it is going or when it will cool.
Martin Luther King Jr. spoke truth to a nation that did not want to hear what he had to say. But there were things that justice required be removed: Systemic and illegal barriers to things the Constitution guaranteed but did not play out in real time. I cannot imagine the burden of having to speak such weighty truth. A prophet’s mantle is heavy and carrying such a mantle has always been dangerous work for guys like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Martin.
Some wonder whether America has really made any progress since those days but I can tell you this American has made progress. Because I have learned that how we listen in those uncomfortable moments is more important that what we have to say. Sometimes people get cross-threaded with me. It’s hard to believe but it’s true. On occasion, they will walk into my office with a lot of anger, frustration and emotion on their faces. Surprisingly these meetings normally end really well. They didn’t used to but they do now. I used to talk. Now I listen. It is my experience that two people of common faith and goodwill who think very differently about very substantive issues can actually grow in love of God and neighbor through difficult conversations. I have found that as I listen to people tell their painful stories concerning race, I have learned much indeed.
Sometimes I watch the news and peruse the Social Media and I am tempted to despair. We are a people fractured, on edge, fragile, angry…and all waiting for the next shoe to drop even as we pray it won’t. The problems before us are complex and deeply engrained; the answers are not clear, if there are answers at all. Sometimes I wonder how the American church, that clay pot of which Paul speaks, can dispense priceless treasure in such times as these? I can honestly say that I have faith that the difficult issues before us are not too hard for our all-powerful and creating God. I also have hope. I noticed a long time ago that people with hope act one way and people with no hope act another way entirely. Those with hope remember there is an end game; a time of forgiveness, reconciliation and healing that by faith will come…and as much as I would like everything to calm down immediately, I know it can’t be rushed.
Some years ago I was in New Orleans for the Mardi Gras on a faith sharing trip and my dad’s appendix ruptured. They were busy at the Tulane Hospital ER that Fat Tuesday and they sort of gave him a room, a round of antibiotics and surprisingly left the wound open. I wanted his sewn up and make better so I could get back to my family, my life and my church. “Make him better now!” The doctor told me he couldn’t can’t sew things up until the infection cleared because the wound will heal fine, even as dad became sicker and sicker on the inside. The idea was not to make my dad look healthy or get me back home for that matter, it was to make my dad truly healthy and that was simply going to take some time!
We should not and cannot gloss over pain and ignore obvious inequities and injustices; just because we would really like to sew things up, send the patient home and tell everyone to act like they are feeling great. We need the skill and wisdom of the Great Physician in 2021.
I know the challenges ahead of us are as great as the abuses behind us. I have no doubt the infection will sometimes flare because we are not yet healthy. But I have faith that we will one day be reconciled, healed and united. I have a hope that has me always conscious of an end game and I have love enough to stay at the table and hear the truths we need to speak to one another…even if it hurts my ears.
Paul wrote, “And now abide these three; faith, hope and love and the greatest of these is love.” So as we enter 2021, ready or not, let us walk in faith, hope and love. For like Dr. King said so long ago, “I have decided to stick with love, hate is too great a burden to bear.”
“I love you and I care deeply” seems like a good place to start.
Rev. Shane L. Bishop is the Sr. Pastor of Christ Church in Fairview Heights, Illinois