David Brooks. You probably know the name and the person attached to it. I guess you could call him a pundit—but he is also a journalist. Some of his articles have appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, for example, and currently he is a columnist at the New York Times. He has written a few books, including his 2015, The Road to Character. In that book, he focuses on the values that should inform our lives--not values that lead to success, a big house, maybe, a fast car, but values that shape us so that we live good and wholesome and virtuous lives—in other words, values that shape our character. It’s a good read. Anyway, somewhere in the book, David Brooks writes something to the effect, “Find a cause to give yourself to, something that can’t, as in CAN NOT-- something that can’t be accomplished in your lifetime.”
That has really stuck with me—and not in a good way. It’s the gnat buzzing in my ear. It’s the splinter in my finger. I mean, doesn’t what he says, go against what we were raised to believe, and how we have been programmed to live—you know--to engage and conquer? To see, whatever it may be, through to the very end? To persevere until the job is accomplished so that one day, when you reach those pearly gates, God will say, ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant, well done?’”
Life is all about goal setting, and accomplishments, right? At least that is what I have often subscribed to—as a way of living. Am I so off the mark? Or is this just my personal personality-frame-of-reference for living, as a first born daughter of a first born father?
Why would David Brooks think that the goals we set should be those we can’t accomplish in a lifetime? Think of a quilt pattern—it’s for a gigantic quilt, say quadruple your average quilt-size. The pattern calls for lots of tiny fabric scraps, and in a design so intricate, that it’s beyond your years to complete it, even if you work on it 24/7; or think of a piece of music, you appreciate, but it’s so complicated, that you know that even if you ARE a great musician, Ethan, you’ll never be able to do it justice. Why even try?
David Brook’s suggestion returned to me this week, as I sat at my desk and pondered our scripture reading for today. It’s about loving one another. Now that’s a goal for you. Jesus of course, talked about that a lot, so the writer of first John is really just reminding us what Jesus asked us, taught us to do. Actually, though, Jesus himself based HIS teachings on love on the Old Testament. We Christians sometimes think that Jesus coined the phrase, “Love your neighbor as yourself, “but it’s right there in Leviticus—a book of the Bible, we are probably not that familiar with—For good reason.
Leviticus is just chock full of archaic laws, about what to eat, and how and when to eat it, how to make a grain offering that will be pleasing to the Lord, and so on and so forth. Anyway, Leviticus DOES have some redeeming scripture verses and one of them is this: — “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Of course, in Leviticus, the injunction had to do with loving “your people,” did you get that? Jesus expanded that notion to include even good Samaritans and others who are NOT “your people”—people who are yes, even your enemies. In other words, Jesus broadened the pool of people we are to love—making our job even more impossible to accomplish. You think it’s difficult to love that nosy neighbor, what about loving a white supremacist? A member of the Taliban? Could we? Should we?
Loving “your people,” loving those who are not expressly “Your people” and loving even your enemies—is definitely not a goal we will ever accomplish once and for all. You can’t perform some act of kindness—as a demonstration of your love--say, bringing a hot meal to someone just home from the hospital, and then, as you stand at your car, ready to drive home, dust off your hands, and say to yourself, “Ok. I’ve loved my neighbor. Now on to the next thing. I think I’ll accomplish humility, next—or I think I’ll take on generosity next.” Doesn’t work like that. To love more and better is a goal we choose to set for ourselves every single day—or not. There is always, always more loving to be done. It’s like that quadruple size patchwork quilt. Yet does Jesus call us to take on the tasking of loving others and to persevere in that our whole lives through.
Which brings me to a true story I learned about this week, and the reason for this whole discussion on love-besides the fact that it is the topic of our lectionary passage for today.
It concerns two women: Susan Retik and Patti Quigley. Back at the turn of this 21st century, they lived in the Boston suburbs. They were both married to successful businessmen, and they were both busy tending to their growing families. Even though they lived near each other, and they may have stood next to each other in the same grocery checkout line; maybe frequented the same playgrounds with their toddlers; they had never met. At this point in the narrative they are living parallel lives. In 2001, though, their lives finally intersected-and dramatically so.
Susan was seven months pregnant with her third child, and Patti was eight months pregnant with her second child when they got the news. The twin towers had been struck by terrorists. That’s where their husbands worked—in the twin towers. On September 11th Susan and Patti both became widows. In the aftermath of that horror-filled day, the two women met, connected, and became friends. They were a support-network of two—both sharing the indescribable sadness of giving birth to children who would never know their fathers. Can you imagine the bitter-sweetness of that? And of course they both faced the monumental job of raising their young children, all by themselves.
Only as it turned out, it was not as “all by themselves,” as they had first imagined. Patti and Susan had each other. And they were surrounded with family members and friends and even strangers who cared about them. In fact, they were overwhelmed by all the care and concern coming their way. They had financial resources, too. They would never have to worry about feeding, clothing, or sheltering themselves or their children.
As Patti and Susan grieved together, tried to see a way ahead together, they decided they had a choice. It would be understandable if they chose to wallow in unforgiveness. That would be the easy thing.
Now here we need to pause. You may be thinking, “Unforgiveness? That’s not a word.” I actually know that already. A friend pointed it out to me. But do you know a better word that expresses that same sentiment? It SHOULD be a word, I say.
Nelson Mandela used the non-word, “unforgiveness” in this coined truism: “Unforgiveness is like drinking poison and then waiting for your enemy to die.” Love that. “Unforgiveness is like drinking poison and then waiting for your enemy to die.”
For Susan and Patti, unforgiveness would have been the easy thing, the understandable thing, but not the right thing, not the Christ-like thing, not the healthy thing to do. Unforgiveness would have been their poison.
Happily, they chose love.
After 9/11, As the US prepared to go to war with Afghanistan, Susan and Patti watched news reports coming from that country. Susan says that watching TV, “I was struck by images of the women in Afghanistan. How terrible it must be to live like that. And what must it be like to be an Afghan widow?”
Widows in Afghanistan, as you might suspect, live in dire poverty. Two thirds of adolescent girls in that country, still today, that’s 2018, are illiterate. They are expected to marry, and it is assumed that their husbands will care for them. But what if they become widows? What if they become widows and they have children?
Susan and Patti founded an organization, “Beyond the 11th”.” It’s purpose? I got this off the organization’s webpage: “To empower Afghan widows afflicted by war, terrorism, and oppression.” With the money they raise they provide training programs for Afghan widows so that they can learn a trade that will eventually allow them to become self-sufficient. And so that the women who learn a trade have plenty of work to do, the organization has founded money-generating job programs. In 2006, five years after their husbands were murdered, Susan and Patti visited Afghanistan. They came face-to-face with widows like themselves. They experienced first hand, love of the other—the kind of not-your-people, love of the other.
Loving Afghan women? Can you imagine the courage it took to take that on? Talk about a goal that they will never fully accomplish. Yet, do they choose to love.
Susan and Patti’s choice to love Afghan women, makes our day to day choice to love seem much less challenging doesn’t it? I mean, if they can love Afghan women, then I should be able to love the snippy clerk at the grocery store, the overworked, sullen garden center worker who hauls mulch to my car, the surly neighbor with the overgrown and extremely weedy front yard.
I want to end this sermon with a quote. It’s taken, again, from the Beyond the 11th website. The quote is from Susan’s brother. It speaks to Susan and Patti and the challenging work that they are engaged in, but it also speaks to each of us:
“There is a way in which each of us makes small choices every day. After a period of time those choices develop into a pattern. Each moral and ethical choice forms our identity. It seems to me that the terrorists who flew planes into the buildings on Sept. 11th; they started making choices a long time ago—choices that took them so far off center that flying a plane into a building seemed like the right thing to do. It’s like any one of us. We choose our way into being ourselves. And I think that’s what Patti and Susan do in little choices and in big choices. When given a choice between violence and love, they chose love.”
The Road to Character. Let us choose love. Amen