I write this in the week we honor Rev Martin Luther King Jr. You will read it during the course of Black History Month. Each year at this time I re-read King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. In this 1963 letter, he responds to a public statement of concern and caution written by eight white ministers in the South. If you have never read this letter, I urge you to do so as it is a remarkable piece that contains deep, prophetic wisdom and I cannot convey its weight in a simple reflection.
I am fully cognizant that the discussion of racial matters might cause discomfort for some readers. After all, creating tension was one of King’s stated goals when he first penned the letter. He challenged readers then and now to press into this discomfort with the hope that it would motivate us to become agents of change. He unapologetically calls upon moderates to take action and stop living by the myth that time alone will fix everything. In short, he challenges us to pick a side: we are either for justice or we are against it.
It has been more than fifty years since Rev Martin Luther King Jr.’s oppressors confined him in Birmingham for taking action. The landscape of the United States has changed in some ways and remained the same in others. We mustn’t ignore the progress that we have made, but we cannot allow ourselves to become complacent either. As King so elegantly put it, as long as there is injustice anywhere there will be a threat to justice everywhere. This is not a political matter, but a human matter. It goes well beyond a conversation about skin tones and policies. It appears here, as a spiritual reflection because peace is a spiritual ambition.
My hope for us is that February is more than a history month. This implies that we are only looking back, as if everything has been accomplished. We can improve things by looking forward too, but if we stop there we will fall into the trap of compliancy. Therefore, this month let us also look around. May we have eyes to see the work that is left to be done. May we have the courage to act in transformative, loving ways toward our neighbor and be transformed ourselves. And may our colleagues, patients, and communities experience a divine hospitality that can only be recognized as an inclusive Kingdom of grace and peace.
Proverbs 11:14 “Where there is no counsel, the people fall; But in the multitude of counselors there is safety.”
The last time I had an opportunity to speak with you, I shared about what it means to be the People of The Path. Today I wanted to flesh this out even more. And I want to offer you a challenge. I want to encourage you to think about who you follow on the path and who might be behind you. Whether you have been here for 40 days or 40 years, you are called to have both. If you are not being mentored or you do not mentor another, my challenge is that you find these.
I have heard several really good sermons about a blessing from the Mishnah and other Jewish teachings that goes something like this: “May you be covered in the dust of your Rabbi.” Basically, what they were saying to disciples was “follow your teacher close enough that the dust from their sandals kicks up all over you.” IF you don’t have one, find a mentor and get up close so that you can learn.
And then ask yourself, who is covered with my dust and what does that dust look like? Everyone in this room is a leader. It is the leader’s job to ensure that there is a student behind them. If you find yourself always blaming the student for not being behind you, then you are not a very effective leader. If your dust is heavy and bitter than the student will not follow. It is your job to encourage them through the tough obstacles along The Path. After all, you are out in front and will recognize many of the barriers.
One last thing: Team Members are not their function. While leading certainly has an element of insuring that people are equipped with the right tools and training, I am talking more about the human aspect of leadership. Your mentor is surly someone you respect because of his or her character. I would bet that you follow the person you do not only because of their skill, but also because he or she has certain qualities that you want. Beyond their competency, you are likely impressed by their integrity, their humility, and their grit. If you want others to be covered in your dust, you have to display these things as well. And that is my prayer for you as you lead others on The Path.
I’d like to share a story with you.
I am in the grief business. I sojourn alongside others as they wonder the wilderness and encourage them to keep going. Sometimes our stories bump up against one another.
I have lived 2500 miles away from where I was born and raised for going on six years now. In that time, many from home have died. Grief from a distance is a strange matter, especially for someone in the grief business. Every once in a while, I get “hooked” to a family and find myself processing a little more of my own grief.
Maybe it was because he was born the same year as my own grandfather. Maybe it was because he passed on the anniversary of my grandfather’s death a couple days ago. He had spunk. I liked that about him. I laughed with his family a lot. They are beautiful people. I was there as he took his last breath. I prayed that God would guide his steps and that he would have peace. When I said “amen” he took one last breath and then was gone. It was a sacred moment in time. They wept. I wept.
When they invited me to speak at the graveside this afternoon I was honored. It was a powerful service with full military honor. I have never kept my cheek dry for the 21-gun salute and taps… I thought about their father. I thought about my own grandfathers. I thought about all those boys who went off to fight that war and then came home to our mothers and grandmothers. When they folded the flag and handed it to his wife of over seven decades I thought of my grandmothers who both received their flags not so long ago.
I shared with them about thin places and how grateful I was to be a part of their sacred story. I gave hugs and condolences.
At that exact same time this morning my own grandmother collapsed 2500 miles away and went to be with the Lord. When I received the phone call I was not shocked at all. My heart was prepared. My mind was open. And now I am ready to walk down into the wilderness for myself, with my own family, and our own sojourners.
I cannt explain how it happens, but suffering is absorbed by community.
At the very moment God was using me to lean into their pain, God was using them to lean into mine. So I say to you, never doubt for one second if your story matters. We are all in this thing together, my friends.
It is said that the Greek philosopher Heraclitus was the first to coin the phrase “You cannot step into the same river twice,” which was later combined with his other writings and morphed into the adage “the only constant is change.” Like many aphorisms, there is a certain level of truth within and yet something about it gives me pause. Heraclitus taught that all things remain in constant process and movement; from fire nature comes and to fire it will return. The cycle repeats and is infinite.
This idea appears diametrically opposed to a belief system which posits that there is a creator God who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Perhaps though, we can glean something from both. In my own tradition, there is a beginning, but there is also an everlasting God. From God comes all things and to God all things return. Between the beginning and the end lies the now, the known, and a possible parallel between faith and Pre-Socratic philosophy.
We live in a space where the Kingdom of God is now, but not yet. In this in between the water seems to relentlessly keep coming, wearing down the banks, and moving loose stones unapologetically around us. This constant shift can be disorienting and painful at times. There will be seasons when we are called to float downstream for a bit and seasons when we stop, plant our feet firmly upon bedrock, and rest with the assurance that our cornerstone will hold.
The water will indeed keep moving: Children grow, friends move, jobs change, but God remains. God is the Alpha and the Omega, the riverhead and the ocean to which the water flows. It is my prayer that each of us has the courage to float when it’s time to move and the faith to trust the bedrock when it’s time to rest. May God give us the wisdom to know the difference.
The Gospel of John begins with Jesus stating, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” He goes on to comfort the disciples by promising that after he is gone God will provide the Holy Spirit to help guide them. Notice that at no time does Jesus say, “Don’t worry, everything is going to be great from now on!” Instead, he tells them that he is going on ahead to prepare a place where they will eventually arrive in the future. In essence, he is saying that things are going remain tough for a while longer, but help is coming. The Greek word used to describe the Holy Spirit in verse 16 is Paraclete. The roots of this word originally signified “Called to one’s side,” but it has also been understood as meaning comforter, advocate, or intercessor. A Paraclete is a witness.
In many ways, our hospital caregiving team is made up of Paracletes much like the advocate Jesus promises. While medicine can often improve bodily conditions, we cannot take away the reality of sickness, injury, or death in this world. We can however be called to the side of those suffering to provide comfort and bear witness to what they are going through. Grief can only be absorbed by communities which have the audacity to lean in and say, “I see that you are hurting.” Beyond all our technology, skill, and training lies the human caregiver who is called to be this witness. Let us not forget that we treat more than the body and may our community hear us saying, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, for I will stand by your side and be your witness.”