While working at my “day job” on Sunday, I heard a hit-it-out-of-the-park sermon by Bishop Gene Robinson, who is the bishop-in-residence at St. Thomas Episcopal Parish, Dupont Circle. Sermons are by nature ephemeral events, written in a week and forgotten by the next. But the mark of an effective sermon is a sermon that you think about the way home on Sunday, over breakfast on Monday, and while you lie awake at night on Tuesday. For me, this was one of those sermons. Because I heard that sermon, I will never gloss over Psalm 27 again.
This sermon reflected Bishop Gene’s real experience of grace despite true persecution. (The man probably still gets death threats. He certainly still deals with a lot of hateful BS.) Somehow, he’s come through all of it made stronger in faith and in personhood, and when he was preaching about Psalm 27, you could tell. The image I saw was that of the blacksmith shop: impurities rising to the surface of the metal and being burned and hammered away in the intense heat. There was pain, but there was strength.
I was sitting in the basement of the Capuchin Monastery at Catholic University, in the makeshift office of the shoestring non-profit TASSC (Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition), huddled around a space heater with a retired full-time volunteer who lived with some local peace activists. There was something in his demeanor that made me instantly like him, but as I got to know him better, I found a wellspring of integrity despite his failing eyesight and shuffling gait. He was in terrible shape, but his mind was sharp as a tack and he was very, very wise. A leader in the Civil Rights Movement who taught the first integrated class at the University of Alabama, he left teaching after being granted tenure to work for immigration rights in the American Southwest, and he had stories like you would not believe. TASSC was the kind of place where stories were valued, and so I heard many of them. And Wise Friend was gracious enough to listen to me and my I’m-a-22-year-old problems.
One day at TASSC, I was chatting with a survivor, and I said something really inconsiderate. Painfully inconsiderate. I just wasn’t watching my words, and they flew out of my mouth and hung in the air, and the survivor just gaped at me. I fumbled around for an apology, but even now I cringe at the memory. I was on the verge of tears when I told Wise Friend about it. He chuckled, and then looked at me with utter compassion and said, “That’s the thing about experience, Becky. By definition, you don’t have it until after you need it. Cut yourself a break.”
Oh yeah. So I thought about Wise Friend, decided to cut myself a break, got up off of the floor, and actually did some work, trusting that my willingness could somehow be transformed into experience.
Part One of this essay series can be found here.