Friday, June 19, 2020

Incomplete

About a year and a half ago, I needed a picture for a children’s sermon of the women who waited at the cross of Jesus. I couldn’t find the one I wanted so I decided to paint one. I had lots of art supplies, always wanting to be able to draw the illustrations of life, but had quickly given up on each of my attempts throughout the years.

For whatever reason, the one I painted of the women at the cross worked. It was what I needed for the sermon and it was what I needed for the place in which I found myself—a place where I had run out of words. 

I read a little here and there and listened to music, trying to get verbally inspired, but while thoughts and interpretations all entered my mind, they ran into the emotions of life events, depression, anxiety and said, “No, I don’t think we want to stay here.” Who would want to stay there? And so words and especially well-placed words left.

I turned to the watercolor. I found the movement of the color with just very little water to be comforting. There were no lines to stay within, and there was no commitment to a shape. If a bird needed to be a little longer or fuller, I could just gently push it with a brush and a drop of water into a more pleasing posture. With watercolor, I painted landscapes of places that I wanted to be. I used colors for emotions and words. The paintings became the completed sentences that I could not form. My computer stayed closed and my canvas pads stayed open.

And then, whereas prayers might be the things I gave to loved ones, the paintings instead let me share my love and thoughts with those around me. As I worked in the hospital and visited children whose parents could not be present, I began to leave little paintings behind with the notation of my presence on the back for their caregivers to find. 

As my words have begun to heal and find their way back, I encountered, as we all have encountered, the year 2020. A new foe for which we will find a vaccine and and ancient foe for which there will be no vaccine spread and their reach has been worldwide. 

I have had few words again, but this time it is not because legible thoughts are not forming in my mind, it’s because I simply have not had any words that seem adequate or authentic or meaningful. Many people have had many words to say; mine have only seemed that they might add to the cacophony.

Thomas Merton’s prayer has kept running through my brain with some amended words: “My sisters and brothers, I have no idea where I’m going or what to say, but I believe (and do hope) that the desire of my heart (which is to offer gratitude and sorrow and solidarity) is heard by you regardless of the incompleteness of my words.”

My canvas pad became the media to which I turned. 

Before I started putting color on the page, I envisioned trees being able to breathe again because of the cessation of human errand and work. But I also saw lungs supported by machines. 

And then I heard a man say, “I can’t breathe.” And though I was not the man, the Black man, I could feel the tightness of his human chest in my human. I could feel the gasping for air. I could feel his fear and I could hear his last song.


So I paint and do also pray:

Hear the confessions of my heart, Oh Lord,

I judge; I idolize.

I envy; I boast.

I speak over; I suffocate.

I struggle to stay true to the compassion imbedded in equality when the pull is strong to walk within the tiered structure of pity.

Forgive me and reconcile me to the earth and to my neighbor. Blind my eyes to type. Open my eyes to pollution. May all of creation have the chance to catch our breath so that we can, bound together in love, establish healthier systems for generations planted, tended, and yet to come. 

Amen.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Pastoral Prayer, March 17, 2019

Given for Madison Baptist Church

We pray, oh Lord, for those among us who are ailing. We pray for their safety, we pray that their pain is held at manageable levels, and we pray for their family members who are either caretakers or who are cared for by these individuals. 

We also pray for your presence to be in hospitals and with hospital systems, insurance companies, doctors offices, therapy rooms, and rehabilitation centers. Match those who can help with those who need help. Ease the financial burdens of healthcare. 

Until all are well, we pray:
Christ with us,
Christ before us,
Christ behind us,
And Christ in us.
Emmanuel, hold your children. 

We pray for children when they hear words they ought not hear, see things they ought not see, or when they are used for an adult’s personal gain.

We pray for children whose mothers’ breasts are not only the source of nourishment and consolation, but are also shields from bombs and bullets.  

Until all children are safe, we pray:
Christ beneath us,
Christ above us,
Christ on our right,
Christ on our left.
Emmanuel, hold your children.

Help us understand that war requires hatred, but that peace does not require nor does it indicate acceptance—the peace we extend only testifies to our faith in your wisdom.

Until all know of your eternal labor towards reconciliation through love not-yet-understood, we pray:
Christ when we lie down,
Christ when we arise,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of us,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of us,
Christ in every eye that see us,
Christ in every ear that hears us.
Emmanuel, hold your children.


Turn your sun to us, that it may shine warmly on our faces and light our paths.
Emmanuel, hold us in the palm of your hand. 

Thursday, December 20, 2018

On the Occasion of Franklin Scott's Retirement, UGA BCM Campus Minister


It was the early 1980s. By either luck of the draw or by drawing of the short straw, the Scott family met the Little family on the grounds of Southern Seminary. His name was “Slim,” and he and Dad began their weird and wonderful friendship by teaming up for intramural everything, including badminton.

I would like to note that while Dad and Franklin played, Mom and Mrs. Georgia worked…  

Money was less than tight for seminary families. I’ve been told that for entertainment, one-year-old Shelynn Scott was called upon to make faces for everyone.

Franklin accrued a host of opportunities to blackmail my Dad—like the time Franklin says he saw Dad riding a bicycle across campus with me on his shoulders. Dad denies this story, but I have no idea why—it sounds completely plausible and likely to me!

The cold months in Louisville were only tolerable because of the warmth between friends.

Several years passed, and then the families reunited in Athens when Franklin came as campus minister to UGA.

Dad, Franklin, and the former pastor of Milledge Avenue Baptist, Buddy Revels, teamed up for several years in the annual BSU 3-on-3 tournaments. Before one of the games, a student told Dad to get a good look at the bottom of his shoe, that that would be what the team would see when it came raining down on top of them. It did not come to pass!

I think that Dad and Franklin had this winning combination of 3% skill, 15% not taking themselves to seriously, 2% luck, 30% height, and 50% weird, secret “no-words” language. (That adds up!)

A follow-up note: Mom and Mrs. Georgia worked at Clarke Central High School together. Did you women ever get to play?

The college years—and some of us accrued more years than others—are full of everything and the campus minister must be ready for it all! In addition to all these different life situations were students of differing cultures, financial class, political and theological persuasions. Local church congregations may have their segments, but nothing like the conglomerate church of the college campus.

Just to whom is one called when one is called to campus ministry?

To the homesick.

To the athlete.

To the academic. To the struggling student. 

To the lovelorn. To the newly engaged.

To the abused and bullied.

To the bully.

To the hungry.

To the Christian. To the atheist. To the questioning.

To the future doctor, coach, missionary, teacher, biologist, writer.

If there is a ministry position that most closely echoes Moses’ time with the wandering Israelites in the wilderness, it is campus ministry.

And how, oh Lord, did your servant Franklin respond to your call? This is what I know and have seen firsthand:

The hungry student was fed. The homesick student was hugged.

The athlete was fiercely coached and then fiercely praised.

The student who was grieving the loss of a parent was comforted. 

The student on academic probation was encouraged.

The naive student was tenderly offered wisdom.

The social outcast was welcomed.

The student who wrestled with God’s call was validated and supported.



The chair in Franklin’s office was available for anyone. And from that spot, Precious Lord, each child was assured of your love, your goodwill, and your sustaining grace. No one left without hope. No one left without a prayer said on his or her behalf.

And as these students entered the very real world of adulthood, that chair remained open. The divorced, the depressed, the weary pastor, the childless, the lonely—they could all return to that safe place of unconditional love for counsel and compassion.

Thank you, Franklin, for trying to keep me safe as a child. Thank you for ministering to me and loving me through my high school and college years, my engagement, seminary, marriage, and ministry. You have always been a loving constant in my life. You’ve greatly illustrated faith to me through your works and your companionship. 

Thank you, oh Lord, for the mighty, sweet, sweet spirit of Franklin Slim Scott. Give him rest today, because I have a feeling that somewhere down the road he will hold the hand of another soul who needs to know of your majesty. 

Thank you for Mrs. Georgia, and for her friendship with my Mom. Thank you, for teaching me algebra. Thank you for not telling my mom when I acted up at school. Thank you for ministering to your students.

Shelynn and Stacey, thank you for sharing your parents. It’s not always easy, I know. I also know that while your Dad’s heart carried all of us, he always carried both of you with him. Good dads can do that, you know. 

My hope and prayer is that you know how much you all are loved. You will always be a part of my family. May the love of God and the hope of tomorrow be made known to you today. Amen.



Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Easy Like Sunday Morning


A Sermon Given to Madison Baptist Church
By Rev. Stephanie Little Coyne
July 15, 2018

Much of my sermon today comes from the experiences that our youth and children and I had during our youth trip and at Kids camp.

While I was at Kids camp, I began brooding about my message today and shared with Jacob Beckham, willing chaperone, and thus now, my best friend, that I always start with more than I need and the process of paring down of my words and scripture is always a difficult one. 

So, our scripture passages today are a little choppy, for no other reason than to be respectful of our time together this morning. I encourage you to read these passages in their entirety for your devotional time with God. The lessons are overwhelmingly poignant. 

I John
1:5-10
5This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. 6If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; 7but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 8If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

2:1-2; 12
1My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

12I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven on account of his name.

3:11-18
11For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. 12We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. 13Do not be astonished, brothers and sisters, that the world hates you. 14We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death. 15All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them. 16We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
18Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

Luke 18:16
16But Jesus called for them and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.


--------------

And Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me.”

His name is Charlie. 

He is an addict, but now, thankfully, has many years of recovery to claim. He was homeless; he was lonely; he lived in lands East of Eden.

And now, the world that held him captive for so many years has now become his church without walls, and his congregants fellow unsheltered people. Charlie walks around his church—wooded areas behind Wal-Mart, Academy Sports, and alongside well-traveled roads in Cartersville—and greets his congregants by call or by name. His hands get dirty while he worships.

On our trip, our youth followed, always several steps behind Charlie, allowing him to enter the homes of the homeless first. He would gently shake their tents, even clap or call their name out loudly if he did not receive a quick response. Several of his church members were not home, some came out and greeted us all, and a few could not be awakened or could not come out of their tents. 

The water, coffee, and food were always welcome gifts, and they each said “thank you,” some, able to look at us, some, unable to let their gaze meet ours. 

At the end of each encounter, Charlie would tell each person that he loved them and that Jesus loved them too. He invited them to dinner at the homeless shelter and to the recovery program. He invited them, and I believe Charlie offered invitation each time he saw them, to come forward…to church, to a different path, to a more loving home, to sanctuary.

Her name is Angela. 

Her church is less than a mile from the homeless shelter. Fluent in both Spanish and English, she makes sure that both languages are heard and can be read in their church services, bulletins, and during their activities. 

There is nothing that can be described as “elaborate” in the church. Their symbols of worship are not fancy liturgical linens or architectural ornaments. Rather, their displays of active ministry in their community are their offering. They love as they have been taught to love. They love as they have been commanded to love.

Though the offering plates of Douglas Street UMC may not be filled to the brim each Sunday, they share and give and do the work of the church faithfully and often.

Their ministries are both financially and emotionally burdensome. The needs of the community are constant and extensive. Most of the money that comes in, goes out. The phrase, “Easy Like Sunday Morning,” means nothing to this church. And as long as people hunger, that would have their church be no other way.

Our group helped serve lunch to children and adults. Children, 18 years of age and younger, eat food supplied by the local school system. There is not always food available for adults. The church relies on donations from local restaurants and grocery stores, or groups like ours who are able to bring lunch for the day. Because of our church’s financial donations to mission work, we were able to leave enough food with the church for two more days of adult lunches.

Her name is Jessica. 

A graduate of both the University of Georgia and Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor, she uses her skills as minister and social worker to aid the community of non-profit organizations in Cartersville. The Good Neighbor homeless shelter was in desperate need of financial and structural management. 

Jessica revamped the program, setting up stages of transition for the people who entered the program. She worked with the other non-profit organizations so that monetary and emotional support could be more efficiently and effectively offered to those individuals who needed such help. In doing this, she and the other directors were able to eliminate some of the duplicate services, making sure that the funds they received were distributed in a more fiscally responsible manner.

Jessica was able to secure funding and materials to build eight transitional homes for those who were entering into that particular stage of the program. The homes have filled a gap in the tiers of homelessness.

--------

But Jesus called for them and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”

“Despised Zacchaeus, come to me! Come down from that tree! I’m going to your house today!”

“Despised Adulterer, come to me. I can give you living water. Go and sin no more!”

“Despised, blind beggar, come to me! Let him come to me! Sir, receive your sight; your faith has made you well.”

Jesus called for the despised to come closer. He called for the addict and the rebel and the mentally ill. He called for the rich and he called for the poor.  He called for the refugee and the citizen and the exiled. Jesus even forgave them and healed them. Christ Jesus even praised them—“Go, and be like the Good Samaritan.”

The life of Jesus—his teachings and his actions—are as offensive today as they were in his time. And why are they offensive? Because they shed light on our hypocrisy and our acts of “un-love.” They offend us because his words speak to us personally and we don’t like to be wrong!

Just as in the very politically-charged time of Jesus, our own “us and them” culture seeks division in our communities and nation and world, and in the Church. We are all party to and agents of our society’s segmentation.

Conversely, in welcoming all, Jesus was closing the gap between the minority and the powerful, the clean and the unclean, or, as we might say, the blessed and the…unblessed.

If I say that my privilege, my wealth, my health indicate the amount of blessings that God has heaped upon me, I cheapen God’s blessing and I cheapen grace. I equate blessing with luck. I distinguish between myself and those who have nothing, not even good health. And why? This is a distinction that God does not make, for we are all God’s children, fearfully and wonderfully made.

When I highlight my perceived blessings, I raise myself above others and my “isms,” my racism, classism, and ethnocentrism, rear their ugly head and I become like the Publican praying at the temple—conceited, proud, and superior—rather than like the tax collector, humble, unjustified, and reverential. Blessing does not come in the form of wealth or material goods, of pain-free lives. Blessing is found in those moments when we are drawn closely, near to the heart of Jesus, and we hear, and we are heard, and we know, without a doubt, that we are loved.

Our political environment—on either side of the metaphorical, and sometimes literal, aisle—contains divisions of people who require their members to assimilate their ideology, sometimes subverting one’s personal theology. They, we, require adherence to human law rather than God’s greatest laws—to love God with our whole beings and to love our neighbors and ourselves. 

We are all God’s children—sinners, in desperate need of forgiveness.

“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world. I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven on account of his name.”

---------

They are our pre-teens and teenagers. Annabelle, Eli, Claire, Grace, Shea, and Eli. They sometimes have trouble hearing. They are often loud and messy. They get tired during the day and yet stay up late at night.

But they are bold enough to serve. On our trip, they filled plates, held babies, played with animals, jumped in on basketball games, learned about history, ate at tables with people who do not look like them.

They sometimes came close for head rubs or hugs. They asked thoughtful questions and gave mature responses. They played with kids who idealize every part of their beings. They gave drive-by smiles and hugs to children—and ministers—who were unaware of their need for one.

“For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in someone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

Henri Nouwen, in his book, Prodigal Son, reveals that his interpretation of Jesus’ parable, and even Nouwen’s own understanding of his ministerial calling, changed when he saw Rembrandt’s painting of the Prodigal’s return. Among his visual revelations was his noticing the people in the background of the painting, the “bystanders,” as he refers to them. 

Nouwen writes:

Certainly there were many hours of prayer, many days and months of retreat, and countless conversations with spiritual directors, but I had never fully given up the role of bystander.

[Those in the painting] all represent different ways of not getting involved. There is indifference, curiosity, daydreaming, and attentive observation; there is staring, gazing, watching, and looking; there is standing in the background, leaning against an arch, sitting with arms crossed, and standing with hands gripping each other. Every one of these inner and outer postures is all too familiar to me. Some are more comfortable than others, but all of them are ways of not getting directly involved. 

Charlie, Angela, Jessica, and our youth, understand that the work of the church is not always in being the bystander. It’s dirty and it’s burdensome! It calls for time and strength that we do not always have. But in our exhaustion, our hearts turn us toward the need for communion with God. We pray and we listen, and we kneel as we return to God’s welcoming house.

---------

“Little children, come to me.” “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

They are our children. Hollis, Payton, Robert, Asher, Mary Ella, Joe, and Michael. They are often whiny, clingy, needy, and muddy. But they are eager and reflective. They listen and understand far more than we adults believe. They absorb and are touched by the presence of God far more than we adults can expect for our own selves.

They are not always welcome because they are loud and unaware. After all, they are all still learning about themselves and their surrounding. But the fews years that they have accrued on this earth means that they are closer to the Creator than we are. They still have forming clay in their innermost parts and hearts. They are often willing to share their emotions, but they are also keenly aware when adults are emotionally needy too.

Thus, they are both impressionable and receptive and we, as Disciples of Christ, have the responsibility to teach, nurture, and model faithful journeys with the Almighty. We are all called to be present for their needs and present in the life of our church. We are called to participate in and even call for mediation and reconciliatory opportunities. We are to pray as Jesus taught us to pray and call to and love children as Jesus called to and loved and still loves us all:

“Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” “Little children, come to me.” 

“Easy Like Sunday Morning,” may be a relaxing tune, but it is not Truth for the Church. It is not always “easy!” But our aim is that God’s kingdom will be on earth, just as it is in heaven—a loving place, without walls, and without conditions for love.

Come, little children, come. Rest in the arms of Jesus, ye servants of the Lord. Amen.











Pastoral Prayer

Oh Lord, you are mindful of us and we praise you for your presence. Your Spirit knows of and understands our deepest emotions and stays with us as we walk through the degrees of each one. 

We give thanks that you are in our hospitals, rehabilitation, and nursing facilities. 

We give thanks that you are in our funeral homes, chapels, and at gravesides. 

We give thanks that you are with us in our homes as we recover and as we mourn.

Lord, you know that we do not understand everything, and we will continue to wonder and wander, but we pray and we believe that you reside with us still, and that your presence will be made known to us. 

When all we have left is prayer, we kneel and humbly come before you: hear us as we pray, conscious of the strength of the words Jesus taught us to say:

Amen.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Changing Perspectives

A Sermon Given to Madison Baptist Church
By Stephanie Little Coyne
May 6, 2018


The week before last, I visited with Steve Barrett. I walked away having gained something from our conversation—a common happening with pastoral ministry. I learned a life lesson; I saw things from a different perspective.

An avid adventurer, I asked Steve what he liked the most when he was flying. His response, “I could see everything. I could see everything from my spot above. It was peaceful, quiet.”

Then he crashed.

“And now,” he continued, “my view is often the ceiling.” He said this with a smile on his face, a mix of revelation of irony and fond memories.

From earth’s dirt, to heaven’s skies, to his present place in a hospital bed, Steve’s perspective, his sight line, has changed. 

I was struck, not only because I was moved by his story, but because my own imagination followed his changing sightline. I could see myself on the ground and then in the air, experiencing along with him the peaceful solo ride through blue skies, seeing the tops of houses and trees, a mountain’s firm hold in the landscape, horses and cows in their green open fields. I saw cars on roads and I saw their paths on those roads far before their drivers could.

And then, I followed Steve’s vision from beautiful blue sky to bland, speckled hospital ceiling tiles. I looked at the one ceiling tile that was painted with the hospital logo—a reminder to the patient of where, in life, he lay. 

For the first time, I saw a bigger picture of Steve. I knew more about him than I had before, simply by traveling with his sight-line. Perhaps I will be a better minister for him. Surely the Holy taught me through him that day.

Philip Yancey, in his book, Prayer, recalls walking up a mountain to find the origin of a stream by which his house sat. From the top, he could see how the water pooled from melted snow and then traveled down to form the stream that lay in the canyon. He writes:
It occurs to me, thinking about prayer, that most of the time I get the direction wrong. I start downstream with my own concerns and bring them to God. I inform God, as if God did not already know… Instead, I should start upstream where the flow begins…Grace, like water, descends to the lowest part. Streams of mercy flow…With this new starting point for prayer, my perceptions change. I look at human beings and see not only a “poor, bare, forked animal,” but a person of eternal destiny made in God’s image.

I believe that perspective might be one of the most important lessons of Jesus’ ministry that we can pass along to our youth. 

Isn’t it a beautiful thing to see the revelatory light in their eyes when they see the world through the eyes of a child in Africa? When they feel compelled by gratitude for new vision to give thanks for their water supply AND to make water more accessible to children around the world? For I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink…

Isn’t it wonderful when they see this church as a safe, sacred space, set in a free-to-worship nation and then see them understand that in this world, this safe, sacred space is the exception and not the rule. Isn’t it wonderful to see them, compelled by gratitude for new vision, to want this same freedom to exist throughout this nation and throughout this world?

Jesus’ presence alone caused Zaccheus, a selfish, greedy man, to seek a place where he might catch glimpse of this radical teacher. Jesus calls out to Zaccheus, inviting him down, and inviting himself over to dinner. And around that table, Jesus draws Zaccheus’ attention to those people from whom he has stolen money. Zaccheus’ perspective changes. This new vision compels him to change, to give it all back—and then some.

This dinner engagement did not delight the crowds around Jesus. Their perspective was that Zaccheus was only bad, that he could never be good, and that Jesus was foolish for even trying. We do not know if their perspective changed—were they able to see Zaccheus through the eyes of Jesus?—were they able to see the possibility of redemption?

Jesus offered new perspective to both the woman caught in adultery and her accusers. “Woman, see yourself as a child of God—you are loved—go and live differently. Accusers, you see her sins—can you see your own? Live life differently.”

What of the Pharisee’s question, “Who is my neighbor?” What was Jesus’ reply? Jesus told the story of the good Samaritan, a story that challenged the cultural definition of righteousness. Perhaps today, the story challenges us to consider different perspectives of Christian compassion.

And in the most fantastic of conversion experiences, Saul, the terrorist, the persecutor, is blinded by bright light from God. When the scales fall off, when his sight is restored, his very name changes, he can literally see with new perspective, and he immediately becomes a proclaimer of Jesus’ message.

I confess that I have not had such a moment. While my beliefs have shifted over the years, I, more often than not, consider this world through my eyes as a white female, educated, English-speaking, two-parent home, raised in a medium size town in the Southern United States. I’ve never gone without food or shelter or clothing. Except for some short travels overseas, I have never considered myself as an “other.” Only during a mission trip to South Korea have I found myself as the racial minority.

Only once have I felt threatened because of my physical appearance of “white female.” And I emphasize once, as I tell this story! Once, a little late at night, I was waiting at a red light, about to head east on interstate 10 towards our home in New Orleans. I rolled forward, about to make the turn, and had to quickly apply my brakes, seeing two African American youth suddenly appear in the road. I stopped, believing that they were crossing the road, having visited the gas station store. Instead, they threw their drinks at my windshield. I flinched, but instead of feeling threatened or scared, I was angry. So in my large SUV, I drove onto the ramp, ticked off. My feelings were such because I felt certain that the incident occurred because I was a white female, an “other,” in that situation. In a mere 10 seconds, my perspective changed. I understood anger that comes from being pre-judged.   

Will Willimon, author of the book, Fear of the Other: No Fear in Love, retells a story from his friend, Tom Long. A stranger, dressed in shabby clothes, entered Tom’s church one Sunday morning. The congregants thought, “perhaps he is up to no good, perhaps he will take money out of the offering plate, perhaps he is preying on us while our guard is down.” 

The man left the church, uneventfully, but having not been graciously received. Tom, a child at the time, saw several of the Georgia farmers talking with each other under a big oak tree after the service. “Everyone knew that God had put our church to a test. And we flunked.”

Collectively, as a body of Christ, that congregation only saw the man through one perspective. Only until he departed did they wonder what the experience must have been like for him.

During our Tuesday morning prayer breakfasts, bright and early, 20+ students and I walked through the many lessons of Genesis 1 together. Each week, we moved back and forth between the understanding of self and the understanding of the world around us. We learned to see the image of God, created in us, as well as the image of God created in the “others.”

These initials are the “others.” Our youth thoughtfully considered those individuals who are cast aside, who are bullied, who are forgotten, and they wrote their initials down so that we would not forget them. We have prayed for them. And the presence of this poster is a reminder for us all to see the people around us as beloved children of God. 

We teach our youth to be good disciples when we, their disciples, help them understand different perspectives, not so they may blend in, but that they might understand the creative work of God that makes us all unique, important, valued children, worthy of God’s grace, worthy of safe space in which to worship, and worthy of compassion.

Not until we see the desert, can we understand true thirst. Not until we roll along in fields that do not hold amber waves of grain, can we be concerned with those who face prison sentences because of any public displays of worship. Not until we experience dental work done on a generator can we believe in the importance of healthcare access for all. Not until we see through the eyes of the disenfranchised can we truly desire for the kingdom of God to be on earth as it is in heaven. 

Oh Lord, help us understand that we are but part of the whole so that we may truly understand the height and width and depth of your love. Oh Lord, change our perspective. Amen.