Does something feel broken with us as a society right now? I’m not a real handy kind of person around the house, and so when something is broken or leaking or on fire and needs to be fixed really quick, I often find myself in the context of a big-box home-improvement store nervously wandering around the aisles, hoping that somebody will help me fix what’s not right. Often, the response I get is something like, “Yeah, I think we have that thing. It’s over on aisle 427 – good luck!” What a difference it has made, however, when someone looked me in the eyes and said, “That’s terrible! I had the same thing happen at my place. I want you to know it’s fixable. Come with me, and I’ll show you how to get this done.”
Those two approaches feel very different to me when I feel out of control or helpless – whether it’s in the hardware store or with more important concerns. Today, I want to highlight people who take the second approach. When life feels broken or needs to be fixed, people who say, “I’ve seen that. I know that it’s terrible, but I’ve also seen it be healed. Come with me; I’ll show you.”
This week, I asked people to share with me where they see possibility being brought into the world. People sent me pictures of diverse crowds dancing and children playing. They sent me pictures of statues representing the best of who we going up and of the worst of who we are being taken down. Someone just sent a painting that said “Smash the Patriarchy!”
This week, I had the chance to sit down with a woman in the church I serve named Genie Fritz. She and her late husband, Ned, did incredible work in conservation efforts here in Texas. One of the amazing things that Ned and Genie would do – instead of handing a US senator or a congressperson a policy about conservation, they would take them camping in the woods and say, “Look at what will be lost!” They would help them fall in love with the soil and the trees, things they could smell and taste and feel and hear.
When I thought about a person who showed possibility in a creative way, Mr. Rogers came to my mind. I think I was especially reminded of him because of the recent film about his life. After watching it, I was dehydrated from all the tears I lost! One thing that really stands out to me about Mr. Rogers was his ability to say what is true with courage – to never shy away from hard topics with kids, but also to hold up a world that could be all in the same program. In the very first week of his show, his land of make-believe showed images of a king who is against change and building a wall. Seem familiar? Rogers showed the children what it would look like for peace to take over that kingdom and for the walls to come down.
And then, only four months after Martin Luther King was martyred, when he was shot down, Mr. Rogers invited a young black singer named Francois Clemmons who he had heard sing in a church to play the role of a police officer on his show. Francois Clemmons was uncomfortable with that at the beginning. He had seen what policing often looked like in his neighborhoods and was uncertain about how much good he could do taking on the same uniform in a children’s television show. But, he said yes and became the first regularly reoccurring African American character on a children’s program in the US. In one stunning episode that shows the kind of quiet subversive nature of Mr. Rogers, he is shown soaking his feet in a small children’s pool on a long, hot day. Francois Clemmons comes by to see him, and Mr. Rogers asks him if his feet are also sore and says, “Why don’t you take your shoes off and put them in the water with me?” This was during a time in which civil rights leaders were being assassinated, and segregation was still so very prominent, and it was illegal in many places for black folks and white folks to swim together in a pool. Those brown and white feet in a pool together at the same time said a lot without saying very much. When it was time for Officer Clemmons to get out of the pool, Mr. Rogers offered to gently dry his friend’s feet before the man put his shoes back on. As a Presbyterian minister, he knew exactly what image he was evoking, and the Jesus that he followed in life was very present in that moment. This is the teacher who would wash the feet of those he served with and for. I see in Jesus a model of a person who could courageously call out with rage what is and also point to a version of what could be with the kind of tangible expression of love that made people come from miles away. In the text called the “Gospel of John,” Jesus used the phrase, “come and see” quite a few times when people ask what he is up to. This is a mystical Greek gospel, the kind that if anyone tells you they completely understand, they probably aren’t right. In it, people say, “What’s going on? What are you doing?” His response is, “Come and see.” Not, “We have a workshop later,” or, “Here’s a theory, I have a policy manual, go and think about it.” No, he says, “Come and see.”
Often, what he is up to is exactly the opposite of what the power structure of his day would want. He knows exactly who is marginalized and not listened to, whose bodies are treated with violence by the state, and he usually responds by saying, “I’m with them. Come and see – we have a dinner you can come to later, but you have to know that Roman centurions and prostitutes will both be there together. Come and see. Come and see.” This is not the safe, eight-pound baby Jesus in the manger who will make all things well without being mad or disrupting the status quo. This is the same teacher who curses his followers for not staying awake. This is the same teacher who protests the injustice of his day by turning over the tables in the temple – the most sacred place they had – running in with rage, calling people names – protesting in the temple and turning the tables over until they were smashed. What an example of a person who could do both – turn over tables in the temple in the morning and build heaven on earth in the afternoon.
Being able to do both of those things is a powerful lesson, and I’m grateful for teachers who show me how to speak out against what is and how to build what can be all in the same life, especially in difficult times. And, right now in our current moral context as Americans, it’s hard to know exactly what to do. Do we turn the tables over or build heaven on earth?
In our moral context as a people, it can feel so disappointing and disheartening and frightening for many of us. Just these past weeks alone, listening to the most powerful human beings on the planet Earth mock those who have come forward to share stories about violence against their bodies and souls – to mock those stories feels like moral injury. It could feel so disappointing, to feel like either we’ve made very little gain in the areas of peace and justice making, or the feelings of despair or powerlessness that have marked so many conversations in my home. It is easy to fall into a moment where we are surrounded all the time not by what could be but with what is, and while it’s necessary to look clearly at what is and say it with courage and turn the tables over, we have to pay deep moral attention to what we surround ourselves with, because it shapes what we believe is possible. We live in human bodies, and human bodies and brains are hard-wired to make meaning from what we encounter. We’re predisposed to believe before we disbelieve, and so the images, people, and environments we encounter from a young age shape our very sense of what is possible. Dr. Mahzarin Banaji at Harvard has done some of the most comprehensive research on our brains’ capacity for bias. In fact, she invented an “implicit bias” test you can take online. She points out just how the human brain is hardwired, unfortunately sometimes, to reinforce the stereotypes and small stories we tell about ourselves. If the only images we encounter of people different than us are demeaning, our brain starts to think that’s what is true, and it’s hard to break out of a fixed sense of what we and others can be. She does say, however, the good news that we are also capable of believing things that are possible but not fully realized yet – if we encounter concrete images of them. This is why representation in media and schools matters, why the images and metaphors used in religion are so important. It matters for people of color to see examples of leaders at all levels that reflect their life. It matters for girls to grow up seeing that there are doctors and lawyers on television programs that look a lot like them. We know what is possible, we know what can change, by what we see.
We’re called to make meaning in a universe in which change is not only possible, it’s inevitable. The question at the heart of every great moral quandary, every societal transformation, every breaking free from addiction, or growth in life is, “Can this situation change?” On a deep level, the answer is YES, because change is built into the fabric of reality itself. Stars are born and die, galaxies change, climates change, and chaos and uncertainty look like they are built into the foundation of every atom. Such change is also possible in you. Recent research on the brain shows that our ideas and identities, habits and understandings are more adaptable than we imaged. The neurons in your brain are plastic and elastic! You can change your mind and make new decisions and do things you never thought were possible, whether you’re young or old. Possibility may be built into the fabric of who we are.
The way of understanding God that makes the most sense in my life right now is possibility. God as possibility. The possibility that’s built into the foundation of every atom and every moment, the possibility that knows that the most recent story of your life isn’t the only story of your life, that the most recent story of our nation isn’t the only story of our nation.
Let me tell you, even for a person whose job description includes making people more hopeful, now is a difficult time. And, in chaotic times, it takes a great deal of discipline to be people who can maintain a solid vision for what is possible. Not only to see it, but believe it and share it to the world. In one of her poems, the writer Marge Piercy speaks of attention being a form of love and a form of prayer. The current system of daily injustice and daily crisis seems designed to keep us from paying deep attention. There is a moral value in being able to calm and still your soul so that you can see what’s worth fighting with and for, so that you can see what’s worthy of your worship and attention and love. However, lately I have been like a pinball in the machine, moving in between outer and inner crisis on a daily basis, checking the news 3500 times a day. I bet I’m not alone. In this constant reactivity, I have no chance to pause and give attention to my life, my God, my community, and family in a deep way. Without that pause, we can spend all our time enraged at what is, and we lose the imaginative capacity to believe that something else is possible. Right now, we need the imaginative capacity to believe that something else is possible.
If I were to reach back into some of my past religious experience for assistance, I would say that the spiritual discipline required of people of hope right now is testifying. If that’s a weird word to you, stick with me for just a minute.
While I am no longer a part of the Baptist church, one thing I respected about that tradition was that when something had saved or changed or healed somebody’s life, they stood up and told somebody about it. They said, “I have experienced real pain, feelings of brokenness and despair, and this has healed me. Come with me if you’d like to see it, too.” Progressives are not always great about testifying, but there is no better time than now to tangibly speak about what gives you hope. I know it is hard to hold up a vision of the world and say “come with me, and this can get better.” I know it’s hard, because almost every vision is imperfect; it can be shot down in a second. I know it’s hard, because we’re bouncing from moral crisis to moral crisis. We are losing our ability to pause and reflect on what’s real and what could be. I know it’s hard when you’re angry, and anger can be good when it is fuel for change. Don’t lose your anger, but don’t get lost in it, either. What is true right now is not the only story of what can be true.
What we need is a community of people who become “come and see” leaders, who look at the outrage of the world and can turn the tables over in the morning and build heaven on earth in the afternoon, who don’t believe that we have to pick one option or the other as our only tools for love and justice. We need people who can smash the patriarchy and sing all in the same gathering. If that’s what you want, then that job is completely up to you. If you have ever experienced something that made you believe a better world is possible, now is the time to start telling somebody. If you have ever been confronted with a love so radical that it saved your life, go tell somebody who needs just that. If you have faced despair and yet you have been surrounded by Mr. Rogers or Jesus or someone who said, “It doesn’t have to be this way,” then do the same for someone else. Because, now more than ever, we need people who know that this can change. This can change, and something like heaven on earth can be built. Be the kind of person who knows what is possible, and who shows it to others, saying, “Come and see.”