Reflection:John’s Love Letter: Part 2 July 1, 2018
1 John 1:5-2:2; John 8:2-11
It’s happened. The thing you’ve always feared, the thing that keeps you awake at night. Your secret is out, and now people KNOW. They know what you’ve done; they know who you really are, and now you’re going to have to pay the penalty. Imagine yourself surrounded by hostile voices, pointing, judging, threatening, condemning. Imagine the terror, the shame, the resentment of those who are no better than you are, but who are not being called out or punished. Imagine being brought up before someone who you are sure is so much better than you that you don’t dare even look at him. Imagine what that’s like! And now wait, to hear what will happen. He holds your fate, your life even, in his hands. What will he do?
Can you imagine yourself there? I think perhaps everyone has something in their life they’d rather others do not know, even those of us who think of ourselves as pretty decent respectable people. Certainly none of us are perfect. On the inside we are riddled with resentments, fears, shame, anxiety, confusion, prejudice, doubt, anger. Please don’t tell me you’re not, because I won’t believe you. I think it’s just who we are as humans. We all have our shadow, our hidden self, the part of us we don’t love and aren’t proud to know – the parts we’d rather no-one else knew either. And then suddenly, we’re outed. They KNOW! They know who we really are! What will their response be?
I chose the story from John’s Gospel to go with the reading from 1 John because I think it provides a vivid illustration about what this passage from John’s letter of love is talking about.
Two things that strike me about these stories today: the first, is that God is a God of light, not darkness. God is a God who brings light into the shadows and shows things and people and situations as they truly are. The second is, that God knows who we are, and forgives us and loves us all the same. There is no condemnation in God; there is only mercy, and a pointer to the way to live in the light. That’s what this week’s letter from John is saying. It’s important – supremely important – because it shows us how to live as servants of the light – to feed the light, and not the shadows.
In our adult study group last Monday we watched a video of a presentation by Ron George, whose traditional name is Tousilum; he is an elder of the Cowichan people. His nephew Hwiemtun, otherwise known as Fred Roland, was the teaching elder for Our Place Society in 2015, and it was his request that brought Ron to a gathering to tell the story of his experience at Residential School on Kuper Island. (my apologies for pronounciation!)
Ron began by stating clearly and graciously that this was not about assigning blame for him; it was simply about sharing his story so that others might understand what it was like for him and for thousands of children like him. He began by reading some reports on what happened at residential schools across Canada, and some of the acts toward the children made my jaw drop, they were so unbelievably sadistic! He took us back to his childhood before the age of 5 – a happy childhood full of games and teasing and outdoor and indoor fun. His mother and father had 12 children and lived in a small cabin – about 600 square feet, heated by a wood stove and lit by a coal oil lamp. He remembers playing Red Rover and Hide and Seek and Kick the Can with his cousins – 20 of them all lived near each other. Then at the age of 5 an Indian Agent came to take him away, and that was the end of childhood for him. I won’t go into the details of what happened to him – you can probably fill in the blanks from everything you’ve heard and read about the schools. Suffice it to say he came out of the school a hurting, broken, angry teenage boy, who didn’t know how to love or be loved.
I know some people don’t want to hear about this sort of thing. I know some people feel you’ve heard enough, and people should “just get over it.” What I heard from Ron – well, anyone who can “get over it” has an enviable strength, resilience and spiritual depth, not to mention a grace that is beyond what I can comprehend easily. Ron even said that just a short time ago, he was able to forgive his abuser. That’s amazing to me!
But can you imagine how much harder it would be to forgive if the abuse was still a secret? If the pain was still festering without any release? If Ron had never been able to tell his story? In shedding light on the truth of his childhood, Ron was able to come to a place where he could forgive the man who traumatized him. What grace! Ron, for me, is a Christ figure. He knows the worst of that man, and still is able to offer forgiveness.
I remember a consultant speaking about the work he does with churches in conflict or facing challenges, and he said, “My job is to bring what is in darkness into the light.” He took the parking lot conversations and brought them into the sanctuary and the board room. He took the gossip and had the gossipers stand face to face with the targets of their gossip. He took the triangulated relationships and had people speak directly to each other, owning their own thoughts and feelings without projecting bad intentions onto the other. It was hard work, but out of it came healing and wholeness, not just for individuals, but for the whole community.
That’s what I want for you, and for me. I want us to walk as children of the light. We’re way better at this, I believe, than we were a few years ago, and I’m pleased that is so. We can always build on and reinforce what we’ve learned – keep being straightforward and honest and respectful of each other in our differences, especially when we come up against difficult conversations and hard decisions. I want us to learn to love and forgive each other with all of our faults, failures and seemingly unforgiveable acts. I want us to open up to God and know the light shining upon us, and I want us to offer that light and love to others, both within this community and in the wider world – even those who horrify us with their words or actions, even those who seem without conscience.
I’m not talking about tolerating evil (as it’s said, your freedom to wave your arms ends when you connect with my nose); I am talking about not feeding the shadows by hanging on to hatred or judgement. If we are angry, let it be the righteous anger of God’s prophets, not the bitterness of the human need to hit and hurt. Instead, shed the light of God’s truth. Shed the light of God’s love. Shed the light of God’s mercy. There will be people in the world who don’t want any of that: who reject it, wholeheartedly, and stay wedded to hatred and prejudice and greed and destruction. John tells us trying to change them is not our problem – frankly, if they are that entrenched they will not change on our account. Our job is to love and pray for them in this life; and to do good instead of evil, for as Richard Rohr reminds us in that quotation for the gathering thought “the best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better”.
So we confess to God our failings and misdeeds, and we get honest with each other about what’s really going on in our hearts and minds. We receive God’s grace for ourselves, and we offer God’s grace to others. If Ron George could do it with someone who destroyed his childhood, so can we! It may be a long journey, but we can put our feet on the road today. Confession, repentance, reconciliation – this is what the letter from John urges; it’s what Jesus taught and lived, and what the apostle Paul reinforced.
I read a story online this week that seemed particularly appropriate given what’s happening south of the border these days. I don’t know if it’s true or not – but it’s a good story.
“Hubert Humphrey was a former vice-president of the United States. When he died hundreds of people from across the world attended his funeral. All were welcome, but one – former President Richard Nixon, who had not long previously dragged himself and his country through the humiliation and shame of Watergate. As eyes turned away and conversations ran dry around him Nixon could feel the ostracism being ladled out to him.
Then Jimmy Carter, the serving US President, walked into the room. Carter was from a different political party to Nixon and well known for his honesty and integrity. As he moved to his seat President Carter noticed Richard Nixon standing all alone. Carter immediately changed course, walked over to Richard Nixon, held out his hand, and smiling genuinely and broadly embraced Nixon and said “Welcome home, Mr President! Welcome home!”
The incident was reported by Newsweek magazine, which wrote: “If there was a turning point in Nixon’s long ordeal in the wilderness, it was that moment and that gesture of love and compassion.” Source: Reported in Maxie Dunnam, The Workbook on Living as a Christian, pp.112-113”
If the story is true, Jimmy Carter got it right: with or without the other’s confession, he offered love and compassion. Thank-you Tousilum, thank-you Jimmy, for being our models. Thank-you Jesus, for showing us the way home. Amen.
Reflection:John’s Love Letter: Part 2 July 1, 2018