Growing up, people used to say that if we didn't stand for anything we'd fall for everything. At the church school we studied martyrs - sawn in two, eaten by flames, drowned in pits - all for a line of scripture, or their chastity, or their version of the sacraments. Heroes, the teachers told us, who knew what they believed and stood for it. The world was split into we, the faithful, and "them." I tried to imagine giving my life for words on a page, tried to imagine believing in a ritual so deeply I'd let them bind me to a stake and light me on fire - but I couldn't. When the school went on prayer marches around the city (to "take the city for God"), I was distracted by the faces, wondered what the world looked like through other eyes, wondered what heroes other people had, wondered what things they'd been told to stand for. "Be careful," my youth pastor said, when I took him my questions. "Open your mind too much and your brains will fall out."
I tell my husband years later, laughing, "I guess I was cursed with an open mind." He assures me this is not a curse and my brain has not fallen out.
I share this with an acquaintance over coffee. It is a tense conversation, I am trying to disarm him. He tells me (in not so many words) that my way of thinking is post-modern drivel. Openness, according to him, is just mental laziness and cowardice. He is very earnest, educated, confident, and his words make my shoulders cringe and my heart start to pull away. I have to breathe deep and work my way down through my body, tell my shoulders to relax, unclench the fearful fists, let my heart pound itself into quietness again. When the buzz in my head dies down I wonder who his neighbors are, his family, if he's ever known brokenness, if his convictions have ever been tested anywhere beyond the walls of a church and the pages of a book. Maybe they have.
Maybe he sees something in me that I cannot see yet.
I remember something Jean Vanier said.
"It is hard work to liberate oneself from inner compulsions, to commit oneself to inner growth, truth, justice, and the service of others. This struggle means many things. It means making an effort not to speak of others from the place of our inner wounds and fears, thus devaluing and judging them. It means not avoiding those who are different, but rather approaching them with a listening heart. For some, it means visiting places where the different are gathered together: prisons, psychiatric wards, institutions for people with disabilities, slums, foreign lands. It means taking time to listen to individuals - their pains, their hopes, their anger, and their depression. This is a constant struggle, something we will always do imperfectly. "
Later, at home, I hold an imaginary conversation:
"I need to stand for something? Alright then, I'll stand. I'll stand right here, open, ready to welcome whomever comes my way." No choosing sides, no holding one group off while I embrace the other, no looking from a distance and shaking my head in sanctimonious disgust.
"Never to categorize, never to separate one thing from another- intellect, the senses, the imagination,...some total gathering together where the most realistic and the most mystical can be joined in a celebration of life itself." ~ May Sarton
"I am suggesting that if each one of us, with our gifts and weaknesses, our capacities and our needs, opens our heart to a few people who are different and become their friends, receive life from them, our societies would change. This is the way of the heart." ~Jean Vanier (emphasis mine)
The exquisite passage in I Corinthians says it this way: "Love believes all things, hopes all things." The daring of it shakes me. Our history is laced with faction and border and the protection of the like-minded group; it's how we survive. And yet here, right within the pages of scripture, we are asked to believe in the goodness, possibility, and worthiness of the other. The closed fist must open, the fear must be vanquished, the crossed arms must untangle, because "love never fails."
Not that day, but another day, I open my heart to that acquaintance again, though it winces and trembles. I will never be free to truly love, I realize, until I can love the ones who have wounded me deepest. God leads me back, and back, and back, to them because He knows this too. "Woman's work is always toward wholeness," continues May Sarton. Not just women's work, but human work, God work. He is always bringing us opportunities to tear down walls, to open our arms to the loveliness of the other. Perhaps on the outside this looks like cowardice, a lack of conviction, but we know when we start to try that it is not. It is far easier to choose a side and camp within the safety of it than to place yourself between camps and hold your arms wide open. Just ask Jesus.
"There are people in every country who never
turn into killers, saints have built
sanctuaries on islands and in valleys,
conquerors have quit and gone home, for thousands
of years farmers have worked their fields.
My feet begin the uphill curve
where a thicket spills with birds every spring.
The air doesn't stir. Rain touches my face."
~William Stafford "Five A.M."
May we be brave, friends. Refuse the easy categories, the crossed-arm "them", the anger that builds walls. This is the only way to peace, to the bringing together of hearts that all of us hunger for. I'm trying too.