When it comes down to it, faith is about mastering our personal response to the unknown, that which we cannot foresee or know. Much of what we claim to know cannot be known as if it were a fact. But, we treat it as if it were. Examples include religious “truths, doctrines, and other non-scientific claims.
There is another type of unknown that I want to consider here. In this category, I include information that we don’t know because we haven’t taken the time to explore, the ways of cultures foreign to us, and perceived differences of faith communities because we instinctively discount those who are unlike ourselves. The latter probably serves to cause more harm in the world than afflictions brought upon us by disease.
I came to this reflection as I was walking through my old neighborhood early Sunday morning with Tamara and we came upon a church I’ve known since my childhood: Carver Heights Presbyterian Church in Columbus, GA. As I walked by, I recalled how foreign that church was to me during my youth. It is directly across the street from the house my paternal grandmother lived in, then my father after my parents’ divorce. Hence, I spent many years watching its members go to and fro. But, I never got to know a single one.
As a young person, there was something odd about the people. They were all African-American as am I. They were normal looking. The church had a nursery and a playground, which appeared off-limits to anyone that I knew in the neighborhood. At one point, the minister and his family lived directly behind my family. But, they were still strangers…complete.
I grew up attending an African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). Most readers probably had never heard of the AME church prior to the shootings at Emmanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, SC. But, it has been a denomination since 1787. I also attended Baptist churches in the neighborhood five minutes away from Carver Heights. And because my family owned a funeral home, I attended boocoo other churches as a part of my work as a youth. But, I never went inside a Presbyterian church or even knew what “Presbyterian” meant. When I walked past the church Sunday morning, all of this flashed before me.
As a person of faith, it seems odd now to look back on a church that was right in my backyard and realize that we forsook the most important of biblical commandments and never blinked an eye: “love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Not only was there no love exchanged, it seemed the people disdained us. They came from outside the neighborhood, by and large, and looked down upon us.
The thing that really dawned on me as a passed by the church on Sunday morning with its people arriving was this: the people were not strange, we just didn’t take time to know each other nor felt any “moral imperative” to do so. Even as backyard neighbors, we lived as though the other didn’t matter. That describes what we might call the opposite of faith: certainty.
But it is a misguided form of certainty and it’s dangerous.
I realized that much of religion in the world exists in this same vacuum. People have no clue about the “other,” but presume the worst, the unthinkable, the ignorant, and a host of other unmentionables that create separation, strife, division, war, and death. And it’s mainly because we presume to know.
The world is full of this evil force. You don’t have to look far. Just open the newspaper, turn on the news, listen to the radio, walk down the street, etc. All over the globe, people are being mistreated due to certainty.
Eckhart Tolle says that this is the worse form of violence that we can commit against one another: presuming to keep others in a box of our own judgment. Those aren’t his exact words, but that is the message. Our unknowing allows us to form judgments about the “other” they don’t deserve. It’s also a disservice to ourselves because we deprive ourselves of relationships and connectedness that transforms the world.
You know, this continues to be a growing edge for me. I’m more aware of my judgmentalism now and work hard to stop it in its tracks. I immediately feel bad when I realize the harm that I’m causing by judging another human being in a way that neither they nor I don’t want to be judged.
Well, where am I going with this? As lame as this sounds, I believe we all need to work on this within and beyond ourselves. We could begin just by being more kind to ourselves, exercising more self-compassion. Then, we could do it with our immediate families, show them some love and respect; not presume to know them just because we live together. We might then extend care and concern to our neighbors and neighborhood churches. When I go by Carver Heights, again, I’m going inside the church and introduce myself; show them some love that I should have shown before.
We ought to teach our kids and the generation that is following us to do the same. That is where true faith comes into play. We can begin living in a way that we can trust will spread through our progeny and their generation and extend to them the invitation to get to know others different from themselves and not presume to know, to be afraid, and spread fear.
I wish that I could make this a little lighthearted. I’m coming up short. It’s a heavy topic. But, I know this much: if I take time to get to know my neighbor that I don’t know and pass by daily as I come and go from my house, surely, we’ll find something to laugh about. That is something that you and I can be certain about.
Well, Tamara and I went to a new church on Sunday morning, a local Unitarian Universalist congregation. We felt welcomed and met a lot of new people. After the service, we spent some time with people getting to know each other in genuine conversation. Guess what? They invited us back. They invited me to come and preach! We’ll definitely return.