I had a curious interaction yesterday. It was Sunday, I was at church (this happens often). The church my husband, Timothy, is working at is going through some growing pains, thinking about who they are and who God is calling them to be as the community changes around them. It’s hard, beautiful, inspiring work of a courageous community of faith. I’m so proud of them and to be one of them.
They’ve realized that they hang out in cliques, like most churches. Choir people over here, teenagers over here, knitters over there, 1937 local high school graduates over there. So to work on blending together, at the coaching of Timothy and other leaders, we paired up for one whole Sunday morning with someone of a different generation of than us.
An adult my parents’ age sat in worship with a chemistry-loving 11th grader. A high schooler had breakfast with a choir member my grandparents’ age. It was kind of neat. I got to hang out at breakfast, during worship, and in a think-tank conversation after worship with an 8th grader named Emily*. Emily is the most motivated 8th grader I’ve ever met. She looks into your eyes when you have a conversation with her. When I asked her what the most important part of worship is to her, she did not say “the music” or “if we had a contemporary band.”
She said the most important part of worship is the children’s sermon. She’s in 8th grade.
She’s bright and empathetic. Her lack of hearing requires her to wear two hearing aids and you have to wave in her line of vision to chat with her.
Before worship, we chatted for a bit, but not very long. Her mom helped us interpret each other. Emily darted off before worship to hang out with her friends. So as much as I want to be best friends with everybody, I had a hard time getting to know Emily. We didn’t know how to communicate and we live in different worlds.
She’s in 8th grade, adopted, super into sports, friends are her life, mostly-hearing impaired hearing. I’m 27, married, discovering my vocations post-grad school, changing definitions of home, career, purpose, can hear.
But I tried. We didn’t communicate super well. I didn’t use my limited American Sign Language skills but I totally should have tried. But the point is we tried.
By the post-worship meeting, I figured out that we could communicate through writing – so I asked her:
“Why is the children’s sermon the most important thing in worship to you?”
She quietly mouthed back, kind of loud, but mostly quiet, “Because it helps kids understand about faith and God, and it helps adults remember what’s important.”
I wrote back to her, “Ok, what other parts of worship would you change, so that kids understand about faith and God, and it helps adults remember what’s important?”
She took out her bulletin from the morning and flipped through page by page. Her eyes scanned and I felt a fire within her moving through the guide, that, as someone who is hard of hearing, is essential for her worship experience.
She stopped at the readings, the Bible stories that are read before the sermon, and she started circling words like “Thus” and other “old English” words that are scattered throughout a NRSV translation. She said these words didn’t make sense to her.
I bring up my morning with Emily because without the pairing-up we did at church as an intergenerational experiment, I probably wouldn’t have talked to her. We don’t look the same. She has hearing aids and we’re 10 years apart. But we tried anyway. I listened. I gave her a thumbs up after she lit the Advent candles during worship.
Something has been heavy on my heart lately. The shootings and killings of black people in the US in the last couple weeks, without due trial, have made me so angry and sad. My Facebook feed has been a cacophony of justice-seeking pleas and Christmas shopping deals. How do we do live life like this? Reading through comments on blog posts where people pour their hearts out, calling for racial justice, make my stomach turn as I read the most black-phobic hateful speech.
Because I’m empathetic to a fault, I try and step into these people’s shoes. Why would they say such hateful things about black people? I don’t know if I’ll ever know.
But I know it’s cheap.
Saying hateful words is easy, it’s quick, it briefly releases energy, it’s at no cost to the writer/speaker.
You know what’s difficult and costs a lot? Being in relationship. Asking, “What’s your name?” Asking, “What’s at stake for you when you do/say these hurtful things? Asking, “What’s important to you?” Asking, “What’s your dream for this world?”
This is hard work because it requires listening, vulnerability, and humility. Costly, and difficult traits of the human experience, but traits that spur the most beautiful and strong movements of love around us. Love that our world is crying out to embody. Typing hateful racial slurs behind a keyboard is easy. Being humble and putting yourself into someone else’s shoes, someone who believes differently, someone who belongs to a different ethnic and/or social community: that is hard work. But it’s work that we deep down know we are driven to do.
We long to connect with each other, and God call us to connect with each other in deep and meaningful relationships. One day, I’m hopeful that God “will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away…. See, I am making all things new” (Rev 21: 3-5). This season that is described in the book of Revelation is coming, but honestly, I don’t think it’s coming soon enough.
In the church season of Advent, in December where we wait all month for Christmas and Jesus’ birth, we cry out “How long, O Lord?” How long until we see justice for the deaths of young black men across the country? How long until the judicial system changes so that racial injustice is a crime, not an expectation? How long until we stop cramming prisons with non-Caucasian individuals, so that the statistic of 1 in 3 prisoners are black, is an ancient artifact?
I spoke with an 8th grader named Emily on Sunday. She’s adopted and has hearing aids, and has the cheerful energy of a teenager. It was hard to communicate, and talking/reading lips was not perfect, but I hope to call her my friend one day. It’s hard work, but I think we can do it, and I hope she keeps talking with me when I ask, “Why is this important to you?”
*Name changed but story’s true.