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“I don’t know. Let’s look that up.”

It was one of the most common phrases around here when my son was growing up.  Actually, now that I think about it, it is still really common, but there are three adults in the house to look things up.  Thank God for Google.

Yesterday in adult Sunday school, someone told us about a church she had visited as a teen.  The pastor told her that they didn’t believe in the Trinity because “we don’t understand it.”  Whoa! What?

How can you not believe in things you don’t understand?  If that was the case, I’d cease to believe in a good chunk of humanity, calculus, and a whole lot of other things.

I can’t say that I always love not knowing something or not understanding.  One of the men, a retired engineer, is way too good at putting me on the spot.  But I think he enjoys it.  “You always looks so surprised!”

But how can we learn and grow if we thing we know everything?  Isn’t that an attempt to put ourselves on the same level as God?

I’m okay admitting that I don’t fully understand the Trinity.  I’m enjoying studying about it but that study would probably be a lot less interesting if I already knew it all.

What are some of the things about faith that you find “un-knowable”?

–SueBE

The woman looked like she was seeing a ghost. “Joan?” she asked. She shook her head. “No, you can’t be. You must be her daughter.”

We were meeting up with my mother’s best friend outside a local theme park. The two hadn’t seen each other in thirty years, so my mother sent me over to see whether the woman in question really was Rita. That’s when she confirmed, as so many others had and have (before and since) my “remarkable” resemblance to my mother.

Only I have never seen it. I don’t have my mother’s large, deep-set eyes, with brow bones to die for. I don’t have her chiseled cheekbones. I’m a full eight inches taller than she is. She has auburn hair and eyes like polished cherry wood; I have dark brown hair and plain brown eyes. And yet those who have known my mother have always commented on our alikeness.

On our last visit to California, Mom showed me an old photo album: pictures of her mother, her uncles who served in World War One, and finally, her own graduation photo. And there it was. Bam! I saw myself in her at last.

In the last year, there have been a number of people I’ve not wanted to see myself in. I imagine this is true for everyone. It is especially true in recent weeks, with all the press about Roy Moore’s run for Senate. How could anyone support such a person? What was wrong with them? They seemed to me some new species of life form, so divorced from humanity as to be something that ought to be studied under a microscope.

And yet. I’m willing to bet that if I spoke to one of these people — maybe for minutes, maybe for days or weeks or years — I would find our point of commonality. I would see myself in them. Because, at some level, we are all the same. We are human.

I want you to think of a person or group of persons that you feel no kinship with. (Don’t kid yourself; we all have one. Or more.) Think about someone whose values, ideas and life has no intersection with your own, whose thoughts and feelings are as foreign to you as a place on a map so remote, you’ve never heard of it. Ho-Ho-Kus. Penetanguishene. Zwolfaxing.

Now think about this: You are more like this person or persons than you are unlike them. How can we bear ill will toward — essentially — ourselves? How can we refuse to see the similarities between ourselves and others? And, having seen them, how can we reject anyone, anywhere, anywhen?

I think that’s what makes hatred: fear. Fear of seeing ourselves as we look into the eyes of others. Fear of seeing that God made all of us, and we are one. Fear that we’re really not that different.

When my mother first saw me after my birth, she said it was “like looking into a mirror.” This Advent season, let’s challenge ourselves to turn the mirrors in the most unlikeliest of directions. Let’s try to see the junctures, the coinciding points, the commonalities. And if we still don’t like what we see, let’s ask the hard question — what is it in me that I don’t want to see?

Boy oh boy, are we in trouble. A 22-year-old Russian man is on trial for playing Pokemon Go in church. A politician in Indonesia is being charged with blasphemy against Islam. Stephen Fry, noted British comedian, is being investigated in Ireland for scathing remarks he made on a talk show, about God — if He exists — being something of a sadist.

I could make more or less well-constructed arguments in each of these cases. No, you shouldn’t play games in church, but if we sentenced every kid who didn’t pay attention during Mass, we’d have very few children left to fill the pews. God is infinitely compassionate, but the British tend to be a bit suspect on such matters, what with having endured hundreds of years of religious-based harassment and executions. And though I don’t always understand Islam, maybe some people just need to settle down a bit. In fact, maybe we all should.

I’m no fan of blasphemy. It riles me up when people make suppositions about God based on limited human experience. But then again, I do this, too. We all do. The thing we so often forget is that God can take it. God’s no hothouse flower, withering away at the scald of an unkind Tweet. God is bigger than we are. We take offense at slights against ourselves and against God. God does not.

In fact, God loves us even at our worst. Especially at our worst. God loves dopey people who do dopey things when they ought to be praying. God loves Islam, even when those who practice its tenets make God into a tyrant. And God loves anyone who makes others laugh — laughter being one of God’s most wondrous inventions.

So lay off, folks. The one thing you can say without a doubt about our species is that we make mistakes. We are error-ridden, clumsy, maladroit, blabber-mouthed idiots on a near-constant basis. And that’s okay, because God made us that way. Out of a pile of dirt and hubris, male and female, we were formed. We make mistakes, but hopefully, we learn from them. We see God only in glimpses, but if we make an effort, those glimpses can be glorious. And we constantly discount God’s capacity — for goodness, for miracles, for compassion and love. We really shouldn’t do that.

But it’s okay. God’s got tough skin. We’d do well to remember that.

Have you ever wanted to take a permanent vow of silence? You know, the kind preceded by a pursing of the lips, a twist of the wrist and the throwing away of an invisible key? I feel that way a lot. For all of my so-called proficiency with words on paper, I’m not a good speaker. Or even a good writer, a lot of the time. Sometimes my brain and my mouth aren’t exactly in sync. And other times I feel as if there is some secret code that everyone else knows but that has been withheld from me. In other words, for social, verbal creatures, we humans sure are good at offending one another. Often, we do not even mean to. There is simply no way to gauge how our words will affect another human being.

We can guess, of course. We know that certain words are hurtful or offensive. But what about the ones that seem to operate in secret — poisonous words that we thought were as bland as unbuttered popcorn, and just as lethal? And sometimes words aren’t even necessary. People have hated other people on sight since the beginning of time. There was a girl I knew in high school who confessed that she loathed me because the first time I opened my mouth in class, I used a polysyllabic word that raised her hackles. I was “a know-it-all.” A prig. Later, we became friends, but I never lost the sense that somehow this was against her better judgment — that I’d failed in some primal way, but had been forgiven for it. Only I still don’t know how I failed.

Haters gonna hate. Isn’t that what the kids are saying these days? Or maybe they used to say it and now it’s as dated as “groovy” and “right on, man.” How would I know? Clearly, words I see as peaceful doves can land like bombs without my consent or knowledge. No one can control how they are perceived by others. Even if they try really, really hard.

So I guess what I’m saying is: be kind. Remember that the person in front of you is as fragile and hurting as you are. We’re all just shivering piles of dust, flimsy and susceptible to blowing away in the lightest of gales. No one wants to be alone. No one wants to be hated. For better or worse, we’re stuck with one another. That’s going to necessitate a heap of compassion, a mound of forgiveness, a great mountain of understanding. It is the job of every one of us to add to the pile. If we claim to be good people, moral people, it is the job of a lifetime.

In the meantime, if I offend you, I’m sorry. I wish I could take that vow of silence and mean it, but I’m afraid I’m just not capable of it. It would mean hiding my light under a bushel basket for one thing, and I’m pretty sure God doesn’t support that kind of thing.

“The rest is silence,” says Hamlet as he breathes his last. Now there’s a guy I can relate to.

There’s an old children’s rhyme (quoted famously in “Singing in the Rain”) that goes like this: “Moses supposes his toeses are roses, but Moses supposes erroneously.” It’s a bit of doggerel that keeps popping into my mind as I reflect further on the subject of forgiveness. For aren’t we all a little like Moses in this way?

We are quick to excuse, expunge, understand and let slide our own sins because they are ours. We know our own motivation. We think ourselves to be, at heart, good people. We cut ourselves slack. We suppose our toes — or our sins, in this case — are roses. But we suppose erroneously. All sins stink.

Imagine extending the kind of compassion we show ourselves to others! Instead of mentally berating the mother who is shrieking at her children at Walmart, perhaps we could recall the last time our own tone was harsh — understandably so, because of the day we were having! What has that mother’s day been like? Or among our own families: Do we not sometimes take for granted that our families will love us no matter what? And does this assumption sometimes carry with it the further assumption that we need not try as hard with our own kin as we do, say, with outsiders? Again, we suppose erroneously. Our families deserve our first fruits, not our leftover scraps.

I’m not advocating beating yourself up for every error you make. Rather, loosen the purse strings on your bag of mercy in the same way you would for yourself. You remember that you are only human. You know you get tired, frustrated, out of sorts. But you forget that other people do, too. You want your own opinions to be accepted and understood, but you’d rather others not express opinions counter to your own. If your own toeses need a little compassion, so do everybody else’s — whether or not they smell much like roses.

I am feeling my way around the subject of forgiveness because it seems to be a prominent need in my life. But it’s prominent for all of us. Forgiveness is not only a gift we give others, it is a gift for ourselves, a letting go of pain and anger that can drag us down and make us stink just as bad as the person who sinned against us. For the health of our own toeses — as well as the toeses of others — maybe we should remember: We are all sinners, and we all smell. Mercy, grace and compassion are just what we need to cover up the stench.

Pope Francis, in his great wisdom, has named 2016 the Year of Mercy. Yet a number of us seem confused by what exactly “mercy” means. It’s like forgiveness, but not quite. Like empathy, but not quite. Like forbearance…but not quite.

The world is greatly in need of mercy right now. Mercy takes us out of ourselves and causes us to look with compassion at those around us. If we all did that — and then acted on what we saw — in what grand and spectacular ways might we change the world? It is a thought worthy of poetry.

What is mercy?
Nothing much. An eye
turned outward. A seeing.
One heart bursting
its home of bone
to say, “I see you.”
To say, “I’m sorry.”
To say, “You matter.”

What is mercy?
It is a choice of roads:
one narrow, one broad.
It is leaving home
for a foreign place,
learning the language,
feeling it on the tongue.
Grasping the verbs, the adjectives.

What is mercy?
It is a bearing of burdens,
balm, bread, blood.
It is entering the wider door,
apprehending the aerial view.
It is naming each stone,
tenderly, but letting it lie,
in the manner of itself.

We’re all talking different languages,

but what we want is the same:

understanding.

Lord,

open my heart to the music

of strange voices;

be my simultaneous interpreter.

Let me apprehend,

make the connection,

like Helen Keller at the water pump,

that I might help them say it

so all the world can comprehend.

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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