Every Tear

John Perricone wrote on Facebook recently, “Several years ago I invited a Buddhist monk to speak to my Senior elective class, and quite interestingly, as he entered the room, he didn’t say a word (that caught everyone’s attention). He just walked to the board and wrote this: ‘EVERYONE WANTS TO SAVE THE WORLD, BUT NO ONE WANTS TO HELP MOM DO THE DISHES.’ We all laughed. But then he went on to say this to my students:

“’Statistically, it’s highly unlikely that any of you will ever have the opportunity to run into a burning orphanage and rescue an infant. But, in the smallest gesture of kindness—a warm smile, holding the door for the person behind you, shoveling the driveway of the elderly person next door—you have committed an act of immeasurable profundity, because to each of us, our life is our universe.’”

For everything there is a season. We are in the season of kindness. In this divided time, it is time for us, the church, God’s promise to the world to “love one another as I have loved you.”

It is interesting the lectionary places the Maundy Thursday text here in May. It’s a lovely call back to Holy Week, just a month ago. Eve used to call it “Monday Thursday” and I just love that. “Maundy” is the Latin word for “command” so Command Thursday is to love. To wash each other’s feet. To break bread and share our stories together.

Everyone wants to save the world, but no one wants to do the dishes. We don’t think our actions add up to much. Or we set our goals so high but can’t figure out how to get there, so we abandon our goals.

We are in a time where the church in our culture is declining. Harvard Professor Robert Putnam and conservative political scholar Charles Murray outlined the dangers of a rampant individualism in their talks at the Chautauqua Institution in 2013. Putnam outlines the problem in his book Bowling Alone: The collapse and revival of American community. Putnam uses the illustration that more people bowl alone now instead of on teams. He traces the origin of the problem to the advent of home television. It is easier to stay inside as entertainment is guaranteed, and we no longer need to find entertainment with one another.

Putnam states that people in this age belong to fewer organizations, know their neighbors less, and even gather with family less frequently. More Americans are bowling than ever before, but not in leagues. Putnam writes, “Between 1980 and 1993 the total number of bowlers in America increased by 10%, while league bowling decreased by more than 40%.”[1] Even as the sport grows, more and more people are bowling alone. It is not just bowling. Putnam points out the decline in other institutions that have been traditionally strong. From the peak years just after WWII until 1997, the following groups declined in membership:

Freemasons: -71%

The American Legion: -47%

Red Cross Volunteers: -61%

Rotary: -25%

General Federation of Women’s Clubs: -84%[2]

Murray agrees with Putnam but describes the problem through the four institutions that American society was built upon. These “institutions of meaning” are family, community, vocation, and faith.[3]  Membership in these institutions has fallen drastically from 1960-2010. Murray states, “The fact that Robert and I describe the problem in almost identical terms should make you take notice and might mean that we’re onto something.”[4]

These institutions are uniquely American. Our European brethren usually leave it up to the government to figure things out, yet our civic and volunteer groups organize and get things done in our culture and those are eroding.[5]

David Goetz adds to the findings of both Putnam and Murray and gives a systems overview to this problem in his book Death by Suburb. Americans are more isolated because our communities have been designed this way. The suburbs are built for isolation. You can pull into your garage, shut the door, and walk right into your house. You never have to be outside and if you do, there is no front porch. Everything is built in the back for privacy. No one stops by unexpectedly. Neighbors hardly know one another’s names. It is far easier to stay away from people. Modern life seems to be the paradox of staying away from community and craving it at the same time. People are the cause of and solution to many of our problems. We want community, but on our individual terms.

Yet this is not happening everywhere. In the southern hemispheres, the church is exploding. Both in Africa and South America. We can look to our kindred in the south and learn from them. We in the western church have long looked to Europe for inspiration. Sure, we have roots there. But we also have roots in Africa.

The Coptic Church of Egypt claims that the Evangelist Mark came to them in 60 C.E. and wrote his Gospel. I was able to visit the Cathedral of St. Mark in Cairo with my seminary class in 2009. We got to hear Pope Shenouda III give a Q&A series. One young man asked the pope, “I traveled to the city to follow a girl and I’ve lost my job and I’ve lost the girl and what do I do?” And the pope stated, “If only you pined for God as you did for that young woman.” And the crowed roared, it was riveting!

We visited one of the first Christian monasteries known as Scetis (pronounced “Skate-Tus”). It was renowned for its library of early Christian writers. It burned and the abbot of the monastery wrote to the Library of Alexandria which had burned down in a barbarian invasion, “We know your lost. You have lost your library, and we have lost our Scetis.” Scetis was said to have housed the original manuscript of Mark along with the great African writers like Tertullian, Origen, Clement, and Augustine of Hippo, all of whom were north African Christians. North Africa was a rich theological field in the first three hundred years of Christianity.

Ethiopia was the first Christian nation. The kingdom converted in the early 300s. I want to visit the churches that were carved from the rocks there. Full churches carved from one solid block of stone. It’s amazing to see the pictures online. Our beautiful cover comes from an Illustrated Manuscript of the Bible translated into Ge’ez, classic Ethiopic. This particular is an example in the illustration in Gondar in the 17th-18th century combining European influences with distinctive local style.[6], I wondered why we don’t know this stuff?! What happened?!

Colonialism happened. Instead of loving our neighbor as Jesus loved us, our European ancestors engaged in some pretty horrific activities. As one African writer put it, “When the missionaries came, they had the Bible, and we had the land. They asked us to pray and when we opened our eyes, we had the Bible, and they had the land.”

Atrocities happened. Let me be clear: No one here is responsible for them. We were not alive back then. However, to justify the atrocities of treating people like property, a whole ideology arose to say that folks with more melanin in their skin are lesser than white folk. We are responsible for standing against that nonsense. The nonsense of white supremacy. It clouds our history and obscures it. We miss whole expressions of Christianity. It shoots up malls in Buffalo, NY. Black and brown folk are not a threat to us. They are not lesser, they are our neighbor and fellow kindred in Christ. I see how the history of Medina is violated when symbols of white supremacy, the Confederate flag, is flown in our town and surrounding area. I hate that flag. I must confess church that I get angry, irrationally angry when I drive past those flags. It is a twisting of our history to fit the narrative of white supremacy.

I loved watching the Henry Louis Gates documentary Africa’s Great Civilizations on PBS.[7] There I was reminded that Timbuktu was once the center of the learned world. When our European ancestors were knocking rocks together in the Dark Ages, Timbuktu became renowned as a place of learning. A 15th-century Malian proverb provides the backdrop for this course: “Salt comes from the north, gold from the south, but the word of God and the treasures of wisdom are only to be found in Timbuktu.”[8]

I grew up being told that Africans never wrote books. But here’s Timbuktu leading the world for three centuries. Here are the north African Theologians that I mentioned earlier. Augustine’s Confessions and City of God are foundational to my faith. We have our cover, a beautiful book, and the fact that the Bible was translated into Ge’ez as early as the 4th century. We have so many gifts from Africa and from our African-American brethren. In this divided time, we are having another talk about race relations. Some want to have it. Others feel guilty and uncomfortable. Others want to rewrite history, leaving out and minimizing the impact of slavery and segregation. What shall we do?

Everyone wants to change the world, but no one wants to do the dishes. We, church, already know how to change the world. We gather around Christ’s table and eat and listen to one another. That’s it. That’s how the world changes.

We can gather around African theologians like the Cappadocian fathers and the desert fathers and mothers and learn from them. We can learn about the history of Africa! A great place to start is Dr. Lamin O. Sanneh’s book Disciples of all nations: pillars of world Christianity published in 2008.

We can sing our next hymn from Ghana that tells of our ethic of the table. We change the world through telling our stories and listening to other’s stories. There we can understand our history and roots of our faith. We can see that Christ is our Lord and Savior of the whole world. Through our listening, we can say, “Oh wow. I never knew that. I’m sorry that happened.”

It’s amazing the power believing someone’s story has. “I see you. I hear you.” are sacred words. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a situation that just is feeling strange, or tense, or off and then you make eye contact. You know that feeling? That wordless feeling of connection of a fellow soul who is noticing what you are? It’s a beautiful thing. It’s sacred. Almost magical.

In the Revelation of John of Patmos, that mysterious book at the end of the Bible, he has a vision of a new heaven and new earth. It does not end in fire and tribulation, the hope is Jesus coming and saying, “I am making everything new!”

God will wipe away every tear. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain for that old order of things has passed away. We are to live in faith that this will happen and can happen. That through our actions, we can bring a little heaven on earth. We do this when we wipe away another’s tears. Not by minimizing or denying their pain, but by listening and saying, “I am here with you.”

In the smallest gesture of kindness—a warm smile, holding the door for the person behind you—you have committed an act of immeasurable profundity. In your kindness and listening and learning, you are helping Christ make all things new.

We are called to build community. We build community by listening to one another. In listening to one another, we feel kinship and belonging. We feel connected and inspired. It’s almost like God has placed that need and ability to connect at a soul level. We are empathetic, and I believe that when reminded of this, we can overcome our selfishness and division.

Everyone wants to change the world… and the good news is… each of us can. By heading to the table and listening… and then doing the dishes afterward. Thanks be to our Lord of Hosts, whose global invitation to the table still stands. Amen.

Works Cited

[1] Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The collapse and revival of American Community. (Simon & Schuster, New York, NY, 2000). Page 112.

[2] Putnam. Bowling Alone. Pages 438-444

[3] Amy Miller, “Murray: ‘A life well lived has transcendent value.’” The Chautauquan Daily. July 24, 2013. Accessed July 26, 2016. https://chqdaily.wordpress.com/2013/07/24/murray-a-life-well-lived-has-transcendent-value/

[4] Charles Murray, “Charles Murray.” Online video lecture. Chautauqua Institution. YouTube, August 8, 2013. Web. Accessed July 26, 2016.  https://youtu.be/IFR4ALRxmRA

[5] Bill Bryson, Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe is where I learned this tidbit.

[6] The Four Gospels in Ethiopic, Gondar, northwest Ethiopia, 17th Century, British Library Museum, March 28, 2022.

[7] https://www.pbs.org/show/africas-great-civilizations/ also on Amazon Prime for those with a subscription

[8] https://www.pbs.org/video/africas-great-civilizations-city-timbuktu-africas-great-civilizations/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.