Hear now these words of wisdom from the 12th chapter of Paul’s Epistle to Rome as told by Eugene Peterson in The Message.
Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle. Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant. Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality. Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody. Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone.
“Love from the center of who you are” and “discover beauty in everyone.” These words from Paul’s message to the Romans have been an important part of my life and ministry. When I was in a particularly challenging situation, I had these very words on a slip of paper under the glass on my desk so I would be reminded of them every day. And believe me, there were days when finding my “center of love” wasn’t an easy task. There were days, when my anger would begin to well-up and I was sure that “vengeance” should have been mine, there were days… well, let’s just say that a glance at Paul’s simple wisdom would calm me down and help me to put things back into perspective.
But putting things into perspective during these difficult times, that seems to be another thing altogether. You see, I’ve noticed during these past weeks of isolation and shut-down that people are becoming even more angry than before. And in this political climate, that’s saying something. But it’s not just politics. I read rants from parents on Facebook about how difficult it is to have their children home all the time. They’re complaining about spending too much time with their spouse and some are even irritated by their dog.
Now, I understand their frustration to a degree. I know they’re worried about the economy, losing their job and subsequently, their health insurance. Fear can easily morph into anger. I get it. But at the same time I don’t. I mean, yes, there are inconveniences caused by having to stay home and being asked to take precautions, like wearing a mask or social distancing, when you have to go out. But from my perspective there are so many bigger things at stake here. Life and death. There are very real issues of injustice; issues that already existed but have been exasperated by this virus. Issues like the very real face of inequality in this nation. People of color, immigrants, undocumented folks, the homeless population; these people are at a greater risk of dying from this disease. And let’s not forget those living in long-term care facilities and nursing homes and the people who care for them. They’re especially vulnerable.
So, the question in my mind is this: How should we respond to these issues? How do we as an “isolated” community of faith actually make a difference?
You know, these are tough questions and there are no easy answers. There just aren’t. But this is where the wisdom of my slip of paper comes into play. “Love from the center of who you are” and “discover beauty in everyone.” These words give us pause and permission to think and then act beyond ourselves. These beautiful words begin to form the foundation of what it means to be a community of faith, a church. Remember, the church isn’t a building. A building can be, and should be, closed during something like a pandemic. But the church, our communities of faith, they’re something more.
Paul, goes on in this passage to describe his vision of what it means to be a community of faith that is “centered in love” He says things like be genuine, choose to do good things over bad things, be humble and be a good friend. He admonishes us to hang in there, stay passionate for justice, a passion that is realized in prayer, outreach to the needy, and this is interesting, he wants us to be “inventive in hospitality.” We should love our enemies; laugh together in times of joy and weep together in times of sorrow. And finally, this one always makes me laugh a little, get along with each other (duh) and whenever possible live in peace with everyone.
You know, there’s an interesting book out there called Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, by Paul F. Knitter. In this book he uses insights from his study of Buddhism to re-frame Christian community and in this re-framing is similar to what we’ve seen in Paul’s “loving center” vision. Take for example the Buddhist greeting, “Namasté.” Namasté is a way of acknowledging that everyone we meet has all the same goodness that is in us. And when we acknowledge that, it enables us to relate to others with genuine compassion.[i]
So, considering this bit of re-framing, how do we then respond to evil? I mean, if we are challenged to see the good in everyone, how do we treat someone who’s not-so-good in our opinion. Well, I would say, in the same way Jesus did. Jesus knew that only the willingness to respond to hostility with peace, to respond to hatred with forgiveness, could lead to real and lasting redemption. He was calling his followers, both then and now, to follow his pattern of non-violent resistance by embracing those who do evil with mercy and kindness and forgiveness.
It’s the way Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela and countless other black South Africans responded to the white South Africans who had committed unspeakable atrocities against them. That’s what it means for a community of faith to overcome evil with good! That’s what it means to find our center in love, even in the midst of suffering, even under oppression. And then begin to discover a deeper, hidden beauty in every single person, even the person whom society tells you to hate. Because here’s the thing. We can only truly overcome evil, we can only truly find peace, if we can embrace the other with compassion.[ii]
So, my friends, as we continue to be and become community in these unusual and often frightening times, please remember Paul’s vision: Love from the center of who you are and discover the beauty in everyone. If you can do that, it will enable you to take a step back during those difficult moments and gaze upon a wider landscape. These words will allow all of us, as a community, to turn our focus outward, advocating for justice for the most vulnerable and peace among nations. This is our higher goal. This is what it means to be a community who finds it’s center in love.
May it be so. Amen.
[i] Paul F. Knitter, Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian (One World Publications) 2009
[ii] Knitter, Without Buddha, 188, where he cautions that even the act of calling others “evildoers” can preclude our ability to respond to them in a way that creates justice and peace and freedom.