Have you heard of the Church of the Exceptional? (A non-denominational, interracial ministry devoted to ministering to the physically and mentally handicapped in the area around Rutherford County, NC.) In 1974, then Governor Jimmy Carter and Dr. Norman Vincent Peale were invited to present a Guideposts award to the Congregation, where thousands had assembled in a municipal center in Georgia. Before the speeches were delivered, the liturgy called for the lighting of the main altar candle.
A middle-aged woman with Down syndrome, walked slowly but proudly down the center aisle carrying a lighted taper. The pastor followed closely, to offer assistance. They reached the altar, but despite repeated efforts, the candle would not light. The crowd held their breath, and Carter recalls a sense of embarrassment that welled up inside. The pastor moved forward to help, but she shook her head, and continued to try. Finally, the candle is lit, and the crowd erupts into applause. But the brightest thing in the huge auditorium was the woman’s face, which glowed with happiness.
Jimmy Carter writes that he doubts whether anyone that night remembers his words. But every life was affected and touched by this woman’s faith and determination.
In my mind I am still in that municipal center, watching as she lights one candle–undaunted and steadfast–this heartwarming glow spilling person to person throughout the gathering. And now into my study here on Vashon Island. Yes.
I need stories to remind me that grace and hope and courage and resiliency are alive and well. The catch, of course, is that these fountains of grace are not necessarily where we expect to find them.
Here’s what I think: the woman is not just lighting a candle, but inviting all of us to a paradigm shift. A different way of seeing. A different way of being. A different way of loving.
The majority of us seem to have an aversion to anything “broken” (especially our own brokenness). Wedded to the notion that those who are different need to be marginalized or “fixed.” Which means that we make premature judgments, naming whatever is wounded or shattered or broken, as wrecked or ruined or threatening, and to be feared; and we miss, we do not see, the flame and the glow of the Glory of God that is within each and every one of us.
What is it about labels that seduce us? Or do they comfort us?
There is no doubt that fitting life (and people) into boxes is easier.
We are certain we know.
We are certain we are correct.
And it does tidy things up a bit.
But here’s the deal: it’s too easy to fuel the fire of misunderstanding and intolerance and small-mindedness when I witness all of this through the lens of my own labels. I can literally imagine myself sitting on that platform, thinking, “Why in heaven’s name are we letting this woman light the candle? Is there not an easier way? How did she get to be one of us?”
I do know that when we label, we exclude, rather than include.
I do know that when we label, we live with scotoma, selective blindness.
And scotoma shuts down our heart, our capacity to care, give, love or welcome.
You Believe WHAT?
What are THEY doing here?
What can I receive from THEM?
Why should I help THEM?
More often than not, Tion Medon’s counsel to Obi wan kanobi on Utapau (for Star Wars aficionados) is right on. “There is no war here unless you brought it with you.”
For starters, Lord knows the world could use a little more tenderness right now.
I live on an island. And I would be fibbing if I told you I didn’t want to put my fingers in my ears, hum loudly, and pretend the news and the world would go away. But then I read a story of a woman’s resilience carrying a candle of hope.
I can tell you that in the church of my youth, I was weaned with an aptitude for intolerance. We knew exactly whom God didn’t care for. Who was on the outside looking in. And we made no bones about naming names. We shunned people. We damned them to hell.
When I grew up, I knew in my heart it wasn’t right, but I confess that under the guise of walking the fine line, I stayed silent too long.
I cannot do that anymore. I know what fear can do. And I don’t want to live that way.
I don’t regret any choices I have made, but I do regret the things I didn’t do.
When I chose not to speak out I was wrong, because I read the faces of the crowd to see what placates.
The mission of the Gospel has not changed. But the stakes have.
Because now I live in a country that wishes to shun people.
Pope Francis minced no words this week, “It’s hypocrisy to call yourself a Christian and chase away a refugee or someone seeking help, someone who is hungry or thirsty, toss out someone who is in need of my help. If I say I am Christian, but do these things, I’m a hypocrite.”
What I am learning is this: Perhaps the very people I exclude, are the ones who carry the light–the candle–that will allow me to see. That will allow me to see the Grace of God. And the expansive reach of God’s acceptance. To every single one of us.
Whether I like it or not, it seems that the kingdom of God will be radically and scandalously inclusive. Think of that. God loves broken people and people who have been marginalized and downtrodden and who don’t fit into boxes. God loves infidels, idiots, those shunned and the heathen. Now that, that is one radical hospitality. That is truly a Church of the Exceptional.
The good news? This Grace cannot be confined or contained or constrained.
We don’t dole it out to the deserving.
We spill it… to anyone and everyone.
And one lit candle makes a difference.
“Please don’t be political Terry.” Well, that’s just it. The election is over and I’m not concerned about who you voted for. It doesn’t matter. Now let us be concerned that we live as a people of faith (and people of a common humanity), and stand in solidarity with anyone who has been marginalized.
Mary Tyler Moore died this week. We will miss her. Did you know that in her role as Laura Petrie (on the Dick Van Dyke show) she pushed the boundaries and made TV execs very uncomfortable? How? By being a women who spoke her mind (scandal), and by wearing capri pants (oh my).
I can’t promise you I’ll try the capri pants, but I will choose to live wholeheartedly from the Gospel for Grace for all, which may mean leaning into discomfort, and a willingness to be honest about what makes it uncomfortable for me.
So. How then shall we live? This is important. NOT, how then shall we react? That’s different altogether. Sputtering and muttering and harrumphing never wears well.
Back to the Church of the Exceptional; the woman is my teacher.
In persistence we choose, steady, daily acts of gentleness and kindness and inclusion and healing. One step in front of another. Heroes are ordinary souls who carry the weight of ordinary life. And heroism is born in every act of kindness and compassion and inclusion, no matter how small. Because in a world cynical and afraid, it takes courage to be kind and generous of spirit, and to fight for mercy and justice.
Saturday night we gathered on the Island for the annual Burns Supper, to celebrate the poetry of Robert Burns. A room full of colorful kilts and festive attire. A bagpiper gathers us. We raise a wee dram or two, tell stories, sing songs, all to celebrate a prolific poet who celebrated what makes us all human and fully alive.
This week I’m reading Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime. And today, time in the garden. The garden detoxifies me. We are still not free from a possible winter freeze, but the signs of new life everywhere make me grin and giggle. And Lord, that does my heart good.
Notes… The Church of the Exceptional story adapted from Jimmy Carter, Our Endangered Values
Quotes for your week…
The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. David Orr
Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy. Proverbs 31:8-9
Any movement will fail if it can’t paint a picture of a world that people will want to go to…
POEMS AND PRAYERS
The Pulse Of God
The limbs of a tree reached down and lifted me, thinking I was its child
And in the meadows, my spirit becomes so quiet that if I put my cheek against the earth’s body I feel the pulse of God
“Tell me the way you do that, birds — enter the private chambers of my Lord?”
And they all sang, they just sang.
I gathered it was time to become a musician, and I did.
Years passed, and the sky reached down one day and lifted me, the birds noticed and spoke,
“How do you enter the Sun like that and know the pulse of God?”
St Thomas Aquinas, trans. Daniel Ladinsky
A person should always offer a prayer of graciousness for the love that has awakened in them.
When you feel love for your beloved and his or her love for you, now and again you should offer the warmth of your love as a blessing for those who are damaged and unloved.
Send that love out into the world to people who are desperate;
to those who are starving;
to those who are trapped in prison;
in hospitals and all the brutal terrains of bleak and tormented lives.
When you send that love out from the bountifulness of your own love, it reaches other people.
This love is the deepest power of prayer.
John O’Donohue, Anam Cara