Do Justice

I said back in November that I might do a series of posts about the things I learned or thoughts I had at the Reformation Project’s Reconcile and Reform conference. The main issue is that I am not a note-taker–in general but especially listening to non-school speakers. Which I recognize as a weakness but not one that I usually feel too terrible about.

So, in lieu of going through some of the specific speakers and take-aways, I thought I would have a little series that was inspired by one of the keynote addresses and which connects to a verse that has pursued me for several years. That would be Micah 6:8, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you?To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” This verse, in connection to a keynote address at the conference delivered by Justin Lee, whose ideas I may or may not be paraphrasing with greater or lesser accuracy at any given moment during the musings. Yay my memory.

Anyway. I thought I would, as Justin did, break this verse down into constituent parts and take them one at a time. Not in any kind of exhaustive sense, lest you think I have the time/energy/training for that, but in a sort of survey of meaning as well as some particular applications that are relevant to me, you, and the world today.


To start, I want to link this together with a couple previous posts that track a little bit of my history with Pride (the gay kind, not the cometh before the fall kind) here and here. Two reasons for this: first, this series was prompted by a queer Christian conference and second, I’ve been on a journey and as I continue, it’s good to look back. If pressed, I’m sure I could enumerate in relatively granular detail some areas of growth for me since those posts but the gist is: yes, I am learning and growing and I’m so happy for that.

On to the topic at hand. Not to be too punny, but I know I’ll never do this subject justice, simply because it’s a big deal and I am not equal to that task. But I shall try, and I shall be led for the time being by the speech previously mentioned. Which you should actually listen to for yourself. The Reformation Project has added several main speakers’ addresses to YouTube and I would highly recommend every one of them. But here’s the one we’re going to be talking about. So go ahead and give that a listen, if you have a sec, but if you have a little less than that, I’d maybe tune it around the 38 minute mark. Anyway, here goes for a quick moment on doing justice.


To begin with, I think it’s important to recognize that how we live matters. Not just as people of faith but as people who acknowledge that our lives have an impact on the people around us, and to see those people and impacts as important. But as someone who believes what Jesus said and did, I do find myself in the position of having freedom of action–no longer being under ancient, Jewish law–and also constrained in action by the love that I bear (in my best moments) toward all others.

So that’s my starting point. I believe that what I do with my life matters because I want to live in response to the love that God has shown and am therefore motivated to see my actions benefit others in recognition of their belovedness.

And now we come to Micah. To begin with, the instruction is to do justice. Starting at the beginning, then, we must see that doing is not simply refraining from acting unjustly, but an active pursuit of justice. It’s something that we should do (and be desirous of doing). In other words, leaning heavily on Justin Lee’s, we are called to put more justice out into the world than we found when we arrived.

We can’t each solve every problem but we can be equipped and prepared to face what we can, when and where we can. I was arrested by Justin’s assertion that we can all be an ally to someone. It is a weighty responsibility but it is as vital as it is life-giving. To give bread to one who has none–or to ask our neighbor to give bread to the stranger who is visiting.

As we’ll talk about more next week, justice without mercy is no justice at all. The aim, it is essential to remember, cannot be retribution or even just punishment. The model that we are shown is that the aim of justice is forgiveness. We cannot ignore the harms that are done–and we cannot simply allow them to continue–but we have to remain focused on seeing perpetrators as worthy of mercy, not caricaturish villains.

Healing is not light. You cannot move on without doing work–hard work. But we also can’t use that as an excuse to never forgive.

I’m not going to try to get any more direct about what ‘doing justice’ really looks like, because yikes. But I want to leave you with two thoughts, one inward and one outward. First, what burdens do you put on others that do not reflect the unconditional love of God for all people? Second, what burdens on others are you in a position to help alleviate–not just in the present moment but in a systematic way so that such an undue burden is not laid on anyone?

 

Too Much Tenderness

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Or, in other words,

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That’s probably too millennial for me but I still thought it was amusing. I wanted to start with a funny little something because I know I drone on all the time about love and it’s all both cheesy and kind of pointless. But the lead-in to that renowned section of scripture (not to say that it’s received short shrift) is fixed in my mind as a rationale for never tiring of saying the same things about love ad infinitum:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

I don’t feel like it’s wildly overstating the point to say that love is kind of the meaning and reason for life, the universe, and everything. Which, I’ll just say, is a little more satisfying an answer–as much of a non-answer as it is–than 42.

I heard this poem about love the other day and was deeply moved. I cannot recommend giving it a listen or read enough. It is by Kahlil Gibran and is so piercingly beautiful that I don’t even know what to tell you about it. I’ve rewritten this section a few dozen times, trying to decide which parts to highlight and what to say about them. Truly, the whole thing is remarkable so please read it. But I will offer something for you here as well because I can’t not.

Before we get to an excerpt, the thing I’ve landed on telling you about is a short line near the beginning and it encompasses, I think, the main idea of the whole work. The speaker says, “When love beckons to you, follow him,/ Though his ways are hard and steep.”

Some conversations about love are difficult to have. As Pete said, referenced in last week’s post, sometimes it’s difficult even to imagine love. Sometimes the road to finding love–within or without–is difficult. Sometimes we resist love because we know that there will be a cost. But when love beckons to us, we ought to follow. Not because it will be easy but because it will be valuable. As the poem describes, we must be threshed and freed, ground and kneaded, to become part of the feast love is preparing.

Sometimes, it’s annoying that in English there is only one word to describe how you feel about goulash, your brother, your significant other, and God. But sometimes, I think it’s actually pretty cool. Love is, as others have noted, a many-splendored thing that does not sit well in rigidly prescribed boxes. I think the trials and joys that love gives, and the multifaceted and varying ways in which we experience is, thwarts any attempt to classify it in language at all, so we may as well have only one to catch it all in a term of wonder, awe, and reverence.

This poem is really just a section of a much longer poetical work but I want to leave you with the final stanza of this part, generally referred to as On Love.


Love has no other desire but to fulfil
itself.
But if you love and must needs have
desires, let these be your desires:
To melt and be like a running brook
that sings its melody to the night.
To know the pain of too much tenderness.
To be wounded by your own under-
standing of love;
And to bleed willingly and joyfully.
To wake at dawn with a winged heart
and give thanks for another day of loving;
To rest at the noon hour and meditate
love’s ecstasy;
To return home at eventide with gratitude;
And then to sleep with a prayer for the
beloved in your heart and a song of praise
upon your lips.

Win

I have not heretofore watched any of the Democratic debates, preferring to read highlights and summaries because I just didn’t want to subject myself to all that conflict and largely meaningless posturing. But I did watch this most recent one, last Thursday, because my younger brother was really excited to see it.

So I sat and watched and we had our running commentary and all that. And mostly, I didn’t think it was worth much for anyone. However (obviously there was a however coming).

You know I’m always here for Pete Buttigieg (surprise surprise) and I was so emotionally arrested by a moment from his concluding response, answering a question about professional setbacks and resilience. His personal story is enough to get me a little choked up, as a gay, but there was one small line from him that really made it for me. I’ll give you the whole sentence:

And what I leaned was that trust can be reciprocated and that part of how you can win and deserve to win is to know what’s worth more to you than winning.

In that particular case, what was worth more for him was the freedom to fall in love. And if that’s not the most simultaneously romantic and presidential thing anyone said in the whole debate, then my name’s Tiddlywomps Chickenbroth. Not an endorsement of him as a candidate, he’s honestly a little underwhelming in my book, but wow I tell you what wow.

What is worth more to you than winning? I don’t imagine that any of my readers are currently running for president, we’re all in different situations and have different things that might qualify as ‘winning’ for us. People talk a lot about the varying definitions of success, so maybe that’s more appropriate here. Wealth, jobs, fame, a legacy.

I would also argue, at least right this moment, that family and friends and things like that should also be excluded. While I think they’re good things–certainly things worth considering for a mature definition of success– I think that there are things that go beyond relationships. On a very abstract level. Though Mayor Buttigieg was talking about something concrete in the form of a specific romantic relationship, I think he nonetheless hit the nail on the head.

What is worth more to you than winning? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: love. And, here, not any specific kind of love like spouse or child or friend. But to live a life that is characterized by love. “Characterized” is a term I’ve used kind of a lot lately, talking about whether this or that is characterized by this or that attribute. I think it’s an important question to ask: not to list attributes or give examples and counterexamples but to wonder what something is like at its core. How would my life be characterized by a hypothetical biographer twenty, one hundred, five hundred years after my death?

Another reason I like thinking about characterization is that it takes some of the pressure off. I know that I’m not really all that good at having loving responses in a wide variety of situations and I know that my actions and words often do not line up with what I would readily profess to be my values. But if we talk about being characterized by love, in the way I imagine it, it’s less about evaluating each moment and more finding a common element across circumstance.

To boil things down a bit, for my own sake as much as yours: thinking of the things that we value above and beyond all else, including and especially an abstraction like love, and then figuring out how to make your life reflect that value.

As a prelude to my topic for next week, I will leave you with this text that will likely be well-known in Bible-y circles. Speaking to achieving success without having fixed anything as more valuable than winning.

“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”

What is worth more to you than winning?

Kind

This week of vacation has been very pleasant for me. Mostly, I have done nothing, or nothing of note. I did take a quick trip to Cheboygan–or, let me rephrase, I drove three hours to Cheboygan, spent maybe forty-five minutes there, then drove three hours back through a bit of a snowstorm. Not much to see or do in Cheboygan, MI but I did get to look at Lake Huron which was the point.

Yesterday, had a lovely time seeing Ralph Breaks the Internet with friends, going to an Asian buffet (apparently the best in Traverse City, which is a tough time), and then eating the pumpkin pies I made and chatting the evening away. Very well enjoyed.

I don’t expect much in the way of happenings today, other than calling up relatives, as one does on Thanksgiving. I’m sure the video chat will be passed willy-nilly around and I won’t get dizzy at all. It’s cold outside (last night had a low of 14°F) and there’s plenty of snow on the ground so I’ll be tucked away inside all day and I’m perfectly content with that.

Anyway, a few quick thoughts on today that almost led me to title this post The Walk but I did not because while seeing another movie this week, this song was playing on repeat in my head and very nearly bringing me to tears.


The thing about me posting my blog on Thursdays is that I always post on Thanksgiving. Which isn’t a bad thing, it’s just a thing. Trying to have good words for you on a holiday that I very much care about. Trying to think of things that feel as weighty as the premise of a holiday dedicated to giving thanks.

Words, however powerful, are only words. I do believe, strongly, in the strength of words. Actions, though, are the very substance of life. So on this day, and more frequently hereafter, may we not only give lip service to gratitude but may we allow our words of thanks to change us. May we not only say “Peace on earth” but also act as peacemakers. May we not only say “Love your neighbor” but also act in kindness to people different from ourselves. May we live out the things we say, and behave as though we believed in our own ideals.

This kind of sentiment is expressed well in the words of John F. Kennedy in his  Thanksgiving proclamation of 1963. I don’t really hold with the quasi-deification of the founding fathers, but I appreciate that it emphasizes the ideals toward which, in our best moments, we can strive.

Today we give our thanks, most of all, for the ideals of honor and faith we inherit from our forefathers —  for the decency of purpose, steadfastness of resolve and strength of will, for the courage and the humility, which they possessed and which we must seek every day to emulate. As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them.

Decency of purpose. Why do we do what we do? Why are we who we are? I’m not sure, but I am thankful that each day is another chance to figure it out.

Reading and contemplating these sentiments, I am mindful of a line from 1 John: “Let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” In other words, may we not talk the talk but walk the walk.


Also this week, I went to see the movie Boy Erased. I have no eloquent words for it. It made me sad. It made me hurt. It was important.

It made me grateful for all I have, for the world that has changed around me, and for a knowledge of self and of God that leaves only room for love.

I am thankful that I am happy and whole. I am thankful that my God is kind. I am thankful that I am myself. In this time, I pray that you feel–beyond any doubt or fear or hurt or guilt–loved.