Making a Living

June 21, 2020

Have you started allowing yourself to wonder – yet – what your life will look like in a world after COVID? Is it still way too early to imagine that? I think we know that even though businesses are reopening in limited ways, and some restrictions are being eased, there continues to be the need to social-distance, and wear face masks.

And hopefully by now, we’ve all adopted the habit of washing our hands like we have an obsessive-compulsive thing going on – which we should’ve been doing all along, anyway.

We know we’re not out of the woods; that new spikes in COVID cases are likely, and that’ll probably be true for at least a year or more. The way people go back to school in the fall will probably look very different. The way we eat in restaurants. The way we go to church.

It’s a crazy situation we have to get used to, like it or not. But that hasn’t stopped me from pining for the day when this will all be a distant memory, like a very strange dream. I normally don’t like to be stuck in big crowds, but the thought of one day attending a football game again, inside a packed stadium full of cheering, chanting people – it feels really great to imagine that.

I also wonder if you’ve started to allow yourself to imagine what life will be like after demonstrations for racial justice have subsided.

I happen to think that the protests of the past few weeks – sparked by the death of George Floyd but truly resulting from years of bias and injustice – those demonstrations have been perfectly understandable and justifiable.

And by them tapering off at all, my sincere hope and prayer is that we don't fall back into complacency, but that we truly work with renewed energy and focus to create deep and lasting change in our culture.

So, let me remind you: one of the things we’re doing at Salem is a new Racial Justice Learning Group. I’ve personally been jolted awake to MY need to better understand and listen and learn more about the roots of racism and discrimination that’s so embedded in our society.

I thought I knew a lot. But I’ve really known so little. And I’m ashamed. I’m ashamed of how we got here, and I want to more powerfully contribute and model how we can get better, together.

So I started a group for all of us to study and focus on what we can do to promote racial justice. We’re going to meet online, but I think for those who can gather safely and at a distance, we’ll meet both ways – online and in-person – at the same time.

But I also started it so that I can be better equipped to work for change.

So that I can be better know how to respond in an informed and faithful way whenever I hear a racist comment. So that I can be more alert to how my own privilege is having an impact on my attitudes and beliefs. So I can be alert to my own racism. So that I can better love my neighbor. And heal and repair what’s broken. So that I can act.

I’d love for you to join us in this learning, and in these discussions. We’re reading books and watching films, really taking a deep dive for a limited time, about six weeks, into asking what we think and feel and how we can be and do better. I know for me, at least, I don’t see an option.

I don’t want to look back on this time and realize that I sat on the sideline when my place was out on the field. So, this is an opportunity for us – together – to discover how we can each do that.

I came across something in my reading last week that spoke to that and really hit home.

It’s a poem by Miyah Byrd, called, “If You’ve Ever Wondered.”

If you’ve ever wondered what you would have done during the Holocaust,

you’re doing it now.

If you’ve ever wondered what you would have done during the civil rights movement,

you’re doing it now.

If you’ve ever wondered what you would have done during the first Pride,

you’re doing it now.

If you’ve ever wondered what you would have done during the Underground Railroad,

you’re doing it now.

If you’ve ever wondered what you would have done during the Ku Klux Klan’s reign,

you’re doing it now.

If you’ve ever wondered what you would have done during Nat Turner’s slave uprising,

you’re doing it now.

If you’ve ever wondered what you would have done during Japanese internment camps,

you’re doing it now.

If you’ve ever wondered what you would have done during the days of the Rainbow Coalition,

you’re doing it now.

If you’ve ever wondered where you’d land in history,

you’re doing it now.

It was one of my consistent experiences as a hospice chaplain years ago to be at the bedside of someone who was dying. It was a special privilege; holy time, really.

I lost count of the times a patient would open up to me – knowing they would soon be transitioning to another kind of life – and tell me what they regretted about this life.

They regretted not appreciating how brief life was. It’s an old saying, but it’s absolutely true that no one wished they would’ve spent more time at work.

But the most common regret of all was what they did NOT do. It went beyond regretting never taking that cruise to Alaska. It was about staying silent when they had the chance to speak up. Remaining on the periphery when they could’ve been - and felt like they should’ve been – in the middle of things.

Not taking enough chances. Not making amends. Not forgiving or asking for forgiveness. Holding onto old grudges that had only made THEM feel bitter, needlessly.

Minding their own business because it was easier and less risky than getting involved. Maintaining or protecting the status quo rather than making waves, and worrying way too much about what other people thought of them.

But I never heard one person ever regret risking, daring, standing out from the crowd. The folks with the most regrets also told me they didn’t think of themselves as bad people or that they were necessarily lacking in courage or moral imagination.

It takes courage and fortitude and persistence to get up every morning and raise a family and do what’s required to make ends meet. Plenty of heroic people never make headlines.

But they also very often told me that they spent too much time waiting and wondering. Waiting for the time to be right to speak out and take a risk. Waiting until they felt fully prepared and practiced before stepping out on stage. Waiting until they had all the resources in place before they could make that move. Maybe even, waiting for the permission they felt they needed.

Only later did they realize, they were always as equipped as they’d need to be in that moment. And that it’s okay to learn by doing. And that the only permission anyone needs, is the permission you give yourself.

The Apostle Paul speaks to that, in terms of life and death. He tells the members of the church in Rome, “you…must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

We get hung up so easily on that word, “sin.” Sin conjures up all kinds of naughty and delinquent behavior, as if God heads up some kind of heavenly vice squad that’s going to bust us for having impure thoughts.

But really? That’s an adolescent, punitive way of thinking about our relationship with God. We never should’ve had idea about God to begin with. No, God has better things to do than worry about how much you might use cuss words.

Sin is much better defined as negligence. Dereliction of duty. Not attempting to live as vibrantly and joyfully and lovingly as you were created to live.

When we all came into this life as squalling babies with everything in front of us; with all those hours and days and weeks, months, and years ahead of us, sin is treating that precious brief lifetime as if it doesn’t matter all that much. Or as if we couldn’t possibly make a positive difference in this imperfect world we landed in.

Which is a huge slap in the face to the God who gave us this gift of life. I could be wrong, but I don’t think we were given such a gift – literally a once-in-a-lifetime gift - to put it up on a shelf. Or to place it in a glass case to try to protect it.

Sin is not taking chances. Sin is complacency. It’s seeing something wrong, and not bothering to make it right. Because no one else is, or because it’s going to be too scary, or because we just don’t have the time to get involved.

Paul says, that kind of life might as well be death. That kind of life is living in sin.

But the good news is, another life is ours to have, if we wake up to it. It’s a life of looking beyond our selves and our needs. It’s the life that Jesus lived and invites us to live. Where you see wrongs and say out loud, “That’s wrong.” No matter what others think.

Can you imagine for one minute, Jesus of Nazareth giving a hoot about what anyone else thought about him, going around everywhere criticizing the way things were in his day and time? Would he have ever reached out and healed a leper?

Would he have ever sat down for dinner with people who were social outcasts? Would he have ever stood on a hillside and told 5,000 people that their lives had value and meaning and that God loved them more than anything, even if they didn’t obey a bunch of religious rules and regulations?

I can’t imagine that we ever would’ve heard of someone named Jesus if he had been content to keep his mouth shut and obey the rules of proper society. He lived life. He lived large. He risked…all he had. And regretted nothing. And changed everything.

That’s the life Paul’s talking about. It’s certainly not a life of waiting around and wondering what’s going to happen next. Because there’s plenty to do right now. It’s about today. Being fully alert to the present moment.

And what we can do to live fully into it, in the same healing, reaching, daring, forgiving, self-giving way that Jesus lived it.

I’ve no doubt you’ve heard before, my favorite quote of all time. It’s by Theodore Roosevelt. Who was a very imperfect person, but who also lived life very large, and who rarely if ever wasted time wondering and waiting for what would happen next. He said,

“The credit belongs to those who are actually in the arena, who strive valiantly;

who know the great enthusiasms, the great devotions,

and spend themselves in a worthy cause;

who at best know the triumph of high achievement;

and who, at worst, if they fail, fail while daring greatly,

so that their place shall never be with those cold and timid souls

who know neither victory nor defeat.”

This is our time. Not to wait and wonder what’s next. But to live today.

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