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Shelley Flannery and I became friends over matching shoes. This was back in first grade, when such things were not only possible but probable. We both wore red Mary Janes on the first day of school, and that, as they say, was that. It seemed a perfectly reasonable basis for a friendship, especially as the first thing I’d ever read (two years earlier, in my sister’s first grade primer) was a story about two girls bonding over having worn the same red dress to school. First grade primers are never wrong.

Finding common ground gets harder as we grow older; instead, we become focused on differences. Yet just the other night in the grocery store, this occurred: a man tapped my husband on the shoulder, and when he turned around, the man quickly apologized, saying, “I’m sorry; I thought you were my friend.”

To which my husband responded, “I’ll be your friend!” And the two shook hands. Maybe it can still be that easy. Maybe if we search out the things that unite us instead of the things that divide us, there’s hope for us yet.

You cannot find
what you do not seek.
Keep to what you know at heart:
We are all of us moving sacks of miracles,
made of the same well-trod dust.
Nothing plumed, furred or scaled
can know us better: know the feel of air
sluicing through our nostrils, the taste
of fruit (honey-smothered summer),
the way our bodies feel in flight.
Let us stumble over serendipity,
and finding it, delight in it.
Come, find yourself in the last place
you’d ever think to look,
in the body you do not know,
in the immanent place
our souls converge.

Sometimes it is good to dial things back, to go back to what is foundational. The problem lies in establishing a foundation, especially when it comes to faith. The substance and quality of God is like an immense shoreline; our apprehension of God, a single grain of sand. We are greatly out of our depth. So let us start with what we know: God made us. God loves us. God hears us. God sent visionary humans to us (as well as — I believe — God’s own son) to speak to us about God’s love and concern for us.

What should we do with this knowledge? There is an impulse to institutionalize it, which has its benefits in spreading the “good news” and in forming communities of spiritually like-minded people for sharing prayer and formal remembrance of God’s many gifts — which, to me at least, is the essence of sacrament.

Where we start getting into trouble is in the details. Which book holds the greatest truths about God?  Within those books, what does a particular revelatory word mean and does its meaning change in translation? What form should our faith communities take? Who is in charge? If you prefer one form of spiritual expression, and I prefer another, does God side with either of us? Does it matter?

It certainly seems to. Each step that seems to unite us is matched by a scattering, post-Tower of Babel-style divisiveness. We can’t seem to get together on anything. So I suggest the following test: If what you think, say or do comes from a place of love, it is of God. If it does not, it is not. If only each of us could do just two things — decide to put God central in our lives and prove it by doing everything we do out of love — all of the problems of the world would resolve themselves. It is our vast misfortune that those two things are the two hardest things for human beings to do.

Let us tackle an easier effort: Let us focus on commonalities rather than differences. Think you have nothing in common with a Muslim extremist? You’d be surprised. You’re both human. You are both, hopefully, trying to live a God-centered life. But you disagree radically on what that entails. The answer is, as ever, mutuality. Stop arguing like grouchy siblings and get together in God’s present and participatory spirit.

My friend Alice hates the word “righteous;” she thinks it sounds steely and unyielding, a word of judgment. I prefer to think of it in its laid-back, ‘70s-speak connotation, a word meaning “awesome” and incorporating everything I’ve just written about mutuality, tolerance and love. If only I — we — could be the right kind of righteous, we’d have the basics covered. And a whole lot more.


Have a Mary Little Christmas

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