Earlier this summer I had the privilege of working with a group of elementary-school-age students for a week. My assignment was to help the students focus on the story of a person of faith from the Bible.
That week we began each day by exploring a different aspect of the story of Noah. We talked about whom we might pick to help when the world gets into a big mess. (Trust me, an old guy wasn’t anyone’s first choice.) We talked about what it might mean to take on a big job from God and how it might have felt to wait through a big flood. (Waiting was not on the top of anyone’s list of favorite things.) We wrapped up the week by talking about the big promise Noah received from God and the big lesson we might take from his story.
The students delighted me each day with their ability to imagine new ways to understand the story of Noah and to connect that story to their own lives. They shared ways in which the world today is in a big mess; the jobs that God might invite them to do; the trust and patience it takes to wait; and how they can believe in God’s promises.
I’ve learned over the years that I always receive more than I give when I work with children. This summer was no different, but the specific gift came as a surprise.
I love hearing stories. Stories about people’s lives. Stories about congregations. Stories about towns or other communities.
This morning I got to listen in as older members of a congregation told stories. Most of them began: “Remember when. . . .”
One of those members also told me about recent conversations she and her siblings have shared. Those conversations also focused on remembering as a way of processing their experiences during the pandemic and identifying the things that really matter to them.
As we all seek ways to move forward following a time of upheaval and uncertainty, perhaps remembering is what we need to do.
Remembering can help us identify what’s important to us. It can ground us—reminding of us of where we’ve been and providing perspective on where we want to go. It also can provide us with reasons for gratitude and hope—both of which help us treasure what’s really important in our lives as we move forward.
Perhaps even more powerfully, remembering can join us to others. It can link us to others in transformative ways.
My birthday was earlier this month, and I heard from a number of friends from across the country. Each call, text, card, and post reminded me how fortunate I am to have people in my life who see the best in me and believe the best will unfold for me.
But how many of us have had the opposite experience? A time in our life when someone assumed the worst about us. Perhaps even reached that assumption without really knowing us.
It’s funny how such an assumption can lead to so many dead ends. Having someone assume the worst about us can stop us from exploring new possibilities, from trying new paths, from being our authentic selves. Someone else’s negative assumption can cast a shadow over how we see ourselves, shrink what we believe about our potential, and limit what we’re willing to risk.
After divinity school I moved to central Kentucky to serve on my first church staff. It didn’t take long to discover that my new neighbors were less than thrilled to have a “preacher” living next door. Despite their politeness, the message was pretty clear: We’re not interested in getting to know you.
I found myself feeling self-conscious when we would run into each other. In fact, sometimes if I saw one of my neighbors getting into his or her car in front of our houses, I would wait a few minutes before heading out to my car to avoid the awkwardness.
Fortunately, things changed over the months that followed. My neighbors and I got to know each other and became great friends.
At some point one of those neighbors told me she’d had all kinds of negative assumptions about me. Because of bad experiences she’s had with the church, she assumed that she knew what I believed, how I viewed the world, and how I would treat her. Even to this day, she admits that she can be surprised by how I view a given issue or make sense of a certain situation.
Several years ago as I was standing in line for a rental car, I heard the agent tell the person in front of me, “You’ll be able to find every kind of restaurant here that you can imagine.”
The rental car desk was in the airport in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
There are many things to appreciate about my hometown, but I can’t agree with the rental-car agent. Unless you’re looking for really good chicken-fried steak, BBQ, or Tex-Mex, there are limits in Tulsa’s restaurant options.
That experience reminds me how often a lack of imagination can limit us. I’m also reminded of that each time I hear someone say, “I could never imagine. . . .”
So what limits our imaginations? I think expectations may be one of those things.
Expectations can be positive. They can spur us to strive for excellence or inspire us to continue to grow and discover who we are.
But expectations also can have negative effects. They can diminish our sense of self-worth or belonging. They can make us feel less worthy, less capable, less adequate because who we are or what we do seems to fall short of what’s expected.
That word was front and center during American Baptists' recent virtual Biennial Mission Summit. It was not only the theme for this online gathering, but in many ways
it defined the event.
Two years ago when American Baptists gathered in Virginia Beach, who could have imagined that the next Biennial would take place virtually rather than in Puerto Rico as was planned? Who could have imagined the challenges and changes that would be sparked by a global pandemic? The anxiety and loss? The weariness and uncertainty?
But the opportunities for worship, learning, sharing, and reconnecting offered as part of the virtual Biennial remind us about another aspect of imagination.
Two years ago few if any in our denomination would have imagined being able to make the current Biennial a reality. But rather than allowing COVID’s countless challenges to become roadblocks, American Baptists have used them as springboards from which imagination has soared. We have imagined new ways to worship and learn together in meaningful ways; to care for one another and reach out to others; and to create opportunities for authentic community.
Several weeks ago a participant in one of our Elder Care Ministries Zoom coffee chats shared about a course in which she and others are learning to use round words instead of cactus words.
The image of cactus words has stuck with me. It brings to mind those sharp or prickly words. The ones that are barb-like and pierce so easily. The ones that often roll off our tongues or our keyboards just as easily.
While I also appreciate the image of round words, I find it more difficult to explain what I think it means. When someone asked me to name some round words, I was unsure how to answer in that moment.
But I’ve continued thinking about how to describe round words.
Here are some things I think they’re not. They’re not words that simply allow us to go around difficult topics—words that are so soft or squishy that they convey nothing concrete or meaningful. They’re also not words that cause us to go round and round in circles—words that are not defined well enough that we can share a common understanding when we use them.
Instead, it seems to me that round words have substance without having sharp edges. They invite conversation rather than inflict wounds. They communicate meaning not malice, hope not harshness, sincerity not sarcasm, and openness not obstruction.
Several years ago the editor of the local newspaper emailed me, along with a number of other folks, to ask about my New Year’s resolution. I thought about responding with a carton that hangs on the bulletin board in my office.
The cartoon is from the comic strip Non Sequitur and features Danae, a precocious girl with a pessimistic view of the world, but not of herself.
Several frames of the carton show Danae sitting at a desk, working on her New Year’s resolutions. In the fourth frame, she’s whistling as she walks away from the desk, leaving behind a list that has a single entry: “Don’t mess with perfection.”
When the local newspaper arrived and I noticed my resolution highlighted on the front page, I was relieved I hadn’t gone with my initial impulse. I still love the cartoon, but I’m glad I went in a more serious direction.
Here’s what I actually wrote in response to the editor’s inquiry: “I resolve to live more in the present. I hope this will help me notice and appreciate the things of beauty, wonder, and joy that offer themselves each day.”
As nice as that resolution may sound, the question still remained as to how I would begin to keep it.
A number of years ago I did something I’d wanted to do for a long time—I took ballroom dancing lessons. Every time I’d see couples floating across a dance floor, I’d think, “I wish I could do that.” So when I saw a listing for a beginning ballroom dancing class, I decided to enroll.
The first Thursday night was pretty scary. There I was with this group of strangers—sure that I would make a fool of myself. We were a pretty motley crew of would-be dancers. And we were bad—really bad.
But once we discovered that we were all equally bad, we relaxed and began to talk and laugh with each other. And, almost in spite of ourselves, we even learned a few basic steps during the course of those weeks.
Toward the end of our lessons, a friend in the class decided that a group of us should go to a real ballroom dance on a Friday evening. So we mustered our courage and went. Talk about scary. As soon as we entered the room, we realized that these people knew how to dance—really dance. What they were doing didn’t look anything like what we’d been doing in class. They moved around the dance floor with sheer grace. And not one of them was counting, “One, two, three . . . One, two three . . . One, two three.”
We found a table and sat down. We had a plan—if we stayed away from the dance floor, no one else would know how bad we were. What we didn’t count on was that some of those other people would come and ask us to dance. When it happened to me for the first time, I heard myself saying, “I’m really horrible. You should ask someone else.” But my soon-to-be partner wasn’t easily discouraged.
Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that
if you just show up and try to do the right thing,
the dawn will come. You wait and watch and
work: You don’t give up. – Anne Lamott
If Anne Lamott is correct, then the past year has been filled with countless opportunities for hope to begin. Darkness seemed to wait around each corner—and yet there continued to be the possibility of new dawns.
Let me share just a few examples from what I’ve come to refer to as the year of the four Cs—canine, COVID, cancer, and change.
In February my canine buddy Wilbur ruptured a disc. I had to decide about surgery that might or might not restore the use of his hind legs. The first two weeks of Wilbur’s post-surgery recovery were pretty dark. He was unable to walk—much less run, jump, or navigate stairs. But hope began to emerge as Wilbur slowly returned to his old self. Each time he seemed to reach the limit of his recovery, he would surprise me. And through it all, he never lost heart. He reminded me almost daily about the importance of not giving up.
It was an Advent Sunday twenty years ago. We’d just finished a hanging of the green service at the congregation I served in Washington, D.C., when a friend with whom I worked at the church walked down the center aisle and quietly said,
I think we need to go home.”
Before I could ask what Paul meant, he added, “There may have been a fire.”
“Home” was the co-op development where Paul and I both lived. Other members of our congregation also lived in the development. When they arrived home that Sunday, they saw fire trucks outside my building. After asking some questions, they figured out the fire had been in my unit. That’s when they called the church and spoke with Paul.
The fifteen-minute car ride home remains something of a blur in my memory. Paul and I had ridden to the church together that day. As he drove my car toward our development, I sat in the passenger seat and wondered aloud how the fire might have started. But more than anything I kept voicing the hope that my dog Max was OK.
Paul parked the car in my garage spot, and we took the elevator up to my floor. As soon as the elevator door opened, we could smell the smoke. Soot marked my front door, which we opened it to go inside.
Although the fire fighters were finished, signs of their work were visible throughout the unit—windows broken out, a hole chopped through a wall, furniture shoved out of the way, pools of water on the floor. There, however, was no sign of Max.
As Paul and I walked back toward the elevator, we saw a building maintenance person. Paul quietly asked if he knew anything about the dog who’d been in the unit.
Although the fire fighters hadn’t been able to save the contents of my unit from smoke and water damage, they’d been able to rescue Max. He was waiting for me in the co-op office.
As Max and I walked with Paul to his unit that afternoon, I had no idea that it would be six months before I’d be able to return home.