Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

(The following is my first entry in Arlington Presbyterian Church’s weekly newsreel. I thought I would share it here as well.)

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

 

I’ve been asked quite a bit over the last few weeks about my job. The comments tend to go something like “you’re a neighborhood pastor! Great! What does that mean?”. As I’ve given this question some thought, I realized that I have a wonderful example of what it means to be a good neighborhood pastor: Fred Rogers.

 

I grew up in Pittsburgh, PA. There’s a few things in which all of us from “da ‘burgh” take huge amounts of pride: The Steelers, sandwiches with French fries on them, and of course, Mr. Rogers. You probably know that Fred Rogers was from the Pittsburgh area. You most likely know that he was a Presbyterian minister. What you may not know about Mr. Rogers him was that Pittsburgh Presbytery ordained him to his position on his TV show. He was ordained to be minister to young people and their families through the medium of television. How cool is that? The heart of Mr. Rogers’ mission should be one that we immediately recognize as being connected to our faith.  He taught us to recognize the special gifts that each of us brings to the table, valuing what makes each of us unique. In recognizing our own uniqueness, we are more easily able to see what makes others unique and in that way, we would love our neighbor just as we love ourselves. Sound familiar?

There are three major attributes that I think made Mr. Rogers so effective that I would like to incorporate into my work:

  1. Curiosity: whether it was a boy on crutches, a world-class cellist, or the worker at a factory, Mr. Rogers always approached his neighbors with a sense of wonder both about who they were and what they did. He asked wide-eyed questions about people’s work and about their feelings. I think a big part of my job is approaching the people in South Arlington with that same sense of wonder, listening to their stories, and understanding their feelings about what is happening in the community.
  2. Affirmation: People who met Mr. Rogers always walked away feeling a little better about themselves than they did the moment before. I know several people who have met him in real life and they all attest to the fact that this was not just a part of the show. This was who he was. He affirmed people’s gifts and skills, but he also simply affirmed their being. I think this is something that we all need, but it is especially true of the vulnerable among us; kids, immigrants, the differently abled… to be able to tell those in our community that they are important not because of what they achieve but because of who they are, created in the image of God, is an important part of building community.
  3. Compassion: At the core of Mr. Rogers’ television ministry was a deep sense of compassion. He drew upon the awkward experiences of his own childhood as well as his formal studies of both child psychology and theology to share in sufferings of those in his neighborhood in a Christ-like way. Some of Mr. Rogers’ most enduring words have come in times of national crisis.

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'” I try to hold on to these words whenever the world feels a little overwhelming. When I look around South Arlington, I see a town full of helpers. And we could do so much more in this community if we all helped together. 

I am incredibly excited for the opportunity to serve Arlington Presbyterian Church in this capacity. You probably won’t see me in a cardigan too often and if I begin to break out in song, run away! You might occasionally see a puppet or two, but that’s a story for another time. What’s important for now is that I am looking forward to being out in the community, listening to our neighbors, and learning how we as a church can be good neighbors in return.

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Go and sin no more.

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So the story goes that one day Jesus was teaching in the temple. The odds are good that his usual crowd was gathered around him. Yes, there were the devoted disciples, but there were also the fringe hangers on, the curious lookey loos, and the skeptics. Whatever brought them there, they were sitting down to listen to this enigmatic man teach. I imagine those toward the rear of the crowd heard the commotion first. Then the sound grew louder and more and more people’s attentions were drawn to the noise. Then Jesus finds himself fully interrupted.

The narrator tells us that she was caught in the act. That’s always struck me as odd. Was this woman just totally lacking in discretion? Was she out in public? Also, “caught in the act” suggests that there were two people there, as “the act” is a show with a two person minimum (I used that line once at a youth gathering. A parent yelled at me afterwards because she had to explain orgies to her teen son. Better he learn from me than out in these streets, ma’am. Anyway….) “Caught in the act” suggests a set up. Perhaps a spurned potential lover set her up for rejecting him. Perhaps the man was being set up, but he got away. Perhaps it wasn’t a man.

Or perhaps, they were setting up Jesus. Setting up Jesus, by this point in the fourth Gospel, was becoming something of a sport for the Scribes and the Pharisees. Again, it seems awfully coincidental that she would get caught at just the right time for her to be brought before Jesus. I don’t know… I’ve always thought this scenario kinda stinks.

They quote scripture at him. “You know, the law of Moses says that we’re supposed to stone a woman like this,” as if he didn’t know the law. Maybe they only thought he knew the stuff about caring for the poor. Now it’s clearly a test for Jesus, but this woman has become a pawn in these man-games. It’s a horribly distasteful story.

Jesus, eyes the situation. Looks at the woman. Looks at her accusers. Says nothing. Bends down. Writes in the sand.

“Uh… Jesus?”

Keeps writing.

“So… we stoning here or what?”

Keeps drawing.

“Dude… say something!”

Keeps writing.

Many have speculated on what he was writing. Some have argued that he was writing out the decalogue. Some think he was writing “where’s the man?”. I imagine the man was in the accusing crowd and I think he might have pulled the plug on this operation if he saw those words scribbled in the sand. Whatever Jesus was writing in the sand wasn’t important enough for the evangelist to note. That leads me to believe that Jesus was less “writing” and more “doodling”. I like the idea of Jesus, Bob Ross style, drawing happy little  clouds or M birds. Perhaps he was sketching out the dimensions for a table he never had a chance to make back in his dad’s shop. That doodle would be worth SO much money today!

The crowd continues to question. Finally, Jesus stands up. This then turns into what I think of as one of Jesus’ most badass/smartass moments. “Sure… you can stone her. Just make sure the person here without sins throws the first stones”. And then, Jesus returns to his doodle. Like a boss!

I don’t know if specific sins flooded into the minds of the accusers, these supposedly righteous Scribes and Pharisees, or if it was a general understanding that their hands weren’t as clean as they imagined them to be. Whatever it was, they dropped their stones, turned and walked away. I imagine they swore as they did so. I can hear some Pharisee going “Whose plan was this?”.

Jesus now sits with the woman who has gotten a raw deal from the beginning of the story. She’s gotta be feeling some mix of exhaustion, confusion, relief, and apprehension. She’s still not technically out of the woods at this point. After a little while, Jesus stands and meets her eye to eye, just as he did her accusers. “Where’d they go? No one condemned you?”

“No one, sir”

“Good. Me neither. Now go and don’t do that again”.

We don’t know what happened next for this woman. It’s nice to think that she never found herself in another situation like that. It’s also a tad naive. We don’t know what lead her there in the first place. Maybe she was genuinely in love. Maybe she was trying to make ends meet. Maybe she had been forced. Or maybe she was simply caught up in a moment of passion. The story just doesn’t say.

It also doesn’t say “Jesus told her to go and sin no more… or else”. “Go and sin no more” wasn’t a threat. It was a hopeful command, an aspiration for this woman’s life. It wasn’t erasing her past, but it was projecting a new future. It was a pronouncement that, if she wanted it, she and her life could be very different from whatever circumstance got her here.

I’ve heard a lot of variations of “go and sin no more” in the last couple of years, many in the last few weeks as I begin to step back into the church world. More often than not, it comes from authorities within the system who say it as a threat. “One more strike and you’re out! Then we’ll know you’re just a bad person!” Sometimes it comes from friends and loved ones. “Dude, I love you, but don’t put us through this again!” It occasionally comes with reassurance. “I love you no matter what you do.”

What I hear from Jesus, and what makes most sense in the context of his ministry is not “go and sin no more… or else” it’s “go and sin no more… but”. “But if you end up back here, I’ll still love you. You’re still my beloved. You’re still made in my image. It’s gonna be harder for you next time, but I’m never going to leave you alone”.

Maybe that’s just me. Maybe I’m creating God in my own image again. Maybe it’s just what I need to hear…

 

 

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“I Love You” or “Why the Sudden Nightly Affirmations, Dude?”

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My favorite podcast for the last six months or so has been The Black Guy Who Tips. Rod and his wife Karen co-host the show where they talk about world events in an unapologetically progressive and unapologetically black way. They discuss news and pop culture. Their insights are often incredibly incisive and it has been cathartic, particularly in the current political climate, to have someone voicing what feels like my perspective. The show is also incredibly funny! It has several recurring segments including “fucking with black people”, “guess the race”, and everyone’s favorite “white people news” where they often just read the headlines of pop stars and actresses that are furnished by the paparazzi. The last segment of the show is always “sword ratchetness”, because sword violence is a real issue, you guys!

After all of the upsetting news, racial tension, bad puns, and media-based hilarity is over the show ends simply with Rod saying “Until next time, I love you!” To which Karen responds “I love you!” and in unison: “Mwah” (the kissing noise). It doesn’t matter how frustrating the events they’ve just discussed were, there is something calming, reassuring, and grounding about that little act of affection from total strangers. It just never sucks to be told that you’re loved.

If you follow me on Twitter (@derricklweston) or are my Facebook friend, you’ve probably noticed that for the last 13 nights, usually between the hours of 11-12:30, I have been posting nightly affirmations. In them, I always include the words “I love you”. The astute observer may have even recognized that I began doing this on the night of the inauguration.

Now let me stop right here for a second. In case I have in some way been too subtle about this fact, I want to make something perfectly clear: I am not a huge fan of the current administration. I am not a fan of the methods they used to get elected. I am not excited about their vision for the country. I have not approved of any person who has been chosen to a cabinet position or an advisory position. I think that much of what is happening in our government right now is highly immoral and I feel that it is the responsibility of every citizen who is paying attention to speak out about what we’re seeing and resist the administration in any and every feasible way.

So, yeah… just in case that wasn’t clear.

I got ready for bed on inauguration night with a sense of impending doom. It was also a sense of powerlessness. As I sat on the side of my bed, I had this overwhelming feeling to just hug everyone I knew and say “we’re going to get through this. And if we don’t get through this, I want you to know that I love you”. So, I eliminated nineteen words from that thought and simply tweeted out “I love you!” Or maybe it was “Hey, I love you!” The response was a lot of “Thanks!” and “I love you too!”. It was nice. It really never sucks to be told that you’re loved. The next night was the women’s march and my house was buzzing with positive energy. I felt hopeful. I felt inspired. I felt that even if this wasn’t the beginning of a long term movement, there was a temporary shout of “No!” from all four corners of the world and I was down with that! It was also the day that Sean Spicer made his debut and that Orange Julius (I can’t take credit for that one) started lying about the size of his inauguration crowd.  Again, I felt compelled before bed to throw an “I love you!” out into the world, both in support of those who had made their voices heard and in defiance of the voices that would present “alternative facts”.

The next days were filled with terrifying news, executive orders, ridiculous cabinet confirmations, and more alternati… lies. The ground of our democracy is shifting. People are scared. People are stressed. I am scared and stressed. Yet each night, after I’ve said goodnight to the kids, decompressed, and maybe had a drink or two, I realize that we got through another day and that we have to continue to encourage each other through this fight. So, I condense what I hope are some uplifting thoughts into 140 characters or less and I tell my community that I love them. It seems to help.

I don’t own this in any formal way, but I have to accept that in some small way, part of my ministry is a digital chaplaincy. I didn’t ask for that, but I have been told that is a service I provide for people. It’s a non-sectarian ministry of encouragement, inspiration, and permission-giving, Permission to be sad, angry, depressed, outraged as well as jubilant, silly, and irreverent. I have a big social media community and I take nurturing it very seriously. There are people in my life about whom I care very deeply yet I have never met them IRL. And I have many friendships where the barrier of small talk has been removed thanks to our online sharing. I take all of this very seriously. I have many friends who have decided to step away from social media since the election and more so since the inauguration. They have every right to do so, especially if it means caring for their mental and spiritual health. For me, an introvert who happens to really love people, this is my way of staying connected.

In my last post, I talked about not wanting to sound alarmist in my reflections about what is going on in the world. I echo that sentiment here, yet I can’t fight the feeling of what Dr. King called “the urgency of now”. My friend Aaron posted these words on his Facebook page this morning: Someone recently noticed that I say “I love you” a lot to a lot of people. The person asked why. I said because I know what it is like to have not said it and then someone is gone. Again, I’m sure that seems extreme, but these strike me as extreme times. I don’t want to leave anyone in my community questioning whether or not they are loved. I don’t want to miss any opportunity to encourage someone who may be feeling the slightest bit world weary. I don’t want to regret not telling my network how much they mean to me.

I hope that my saying it each night doesn’t cheapen it. I hope to not sink to the level of cliche or platitude. I hope that my words are matched with actions. I hope that I get to say it to you face to face. I think we all need to hear it. When we’re scared, when we’re overwhelmed, when we’re confused, when we’re frustrated, when we feel totally lost…

It just never sucks to be told that you’re loved.

 

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