Sunday, August 9, 2015

Practicing Love


On Monday nights during these summer months, I’ve been rehearsing with a wonderful chorus of over a hundred voices as we work toward a big concert on September 3 at Halton Theater. No one associated with the concert is receiving a dime and all proceeds are going toward charities that have the mission of preventing bullying: Time Out Youth, which we know very well at Holy Trinity after they made their home in our building for many years until they outgrew us, and the Tyler Clementi Foundation.

Some of you may remember the big concert last year that went to benefit the fight against breast cancer. This year, it is the fight against bullying. All the music deals with that theme, including the centerpiece of the concert, Tyler's Suite. Tyler’s Suite was just written this year, commissioned by the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, and it includes amazing new pieces from some of the best composers of our time-- all to honor the life of Tyler Clementi.

Tyler Clementi was a college freshman who played the the violin and rode a unicycle and loved life. His new roommate thought it would be fun to set up a hidden webcam in his room and record an intimate evening that Tyler had with his boyfriend. Then the roommate posted the video on the internet. A few days later, Tyler jumped off the George Washington Bridge, taking his own life.

His family will be at our concert and I don’t know how we’ll be able to sing after we meet them. Our chorus director, Kathryn Mahan told us that a few singers in the chorus decided this topic was too close to home for them and they had to drop out. And here’s what she wrote in an email to us:

“What's interesting about that... is that I think we all understand that something like breast cancer - which we sang about last summer - can be emotionally devastating. When someone ‘isn't ready yet’ to sing about cancer, we get it. But have we considered that something like bullying can be equally tragic?

“And unlike cancer, bullying is 100% optional. It is completely within our power as human beings to live in a world where each and every single person is respected. Where we deride no one. Where we make it our daily practice to listen and learn from one another. Where we meet intolerance with compassion and transform it into relationship. Where we look toward, not away from, the person who's vulnerable. Where we use the power of our voices not to harm, but to uphold.”

Bullying is a problem that particularly affects gay and transgender kids, and it takes far too many lives. More than 30% of LGBTQ youth report at least one suicide attempt within the past year. More than 50% of transgender youth will attempt suicide before they turn 20.

But bullying isn’t reserved for the LGBT community. We human beings have difficulties with tolerance, and forgiveness, and kindness. Jesus himself was a victim of bullying. He was derided by others right up until his dying breath.

Bullying, as I see it, is what happens when we lose our capacity for empathy. When we look at other people and we fail to see them as human beings who have feelings, just like us.

I like to think I’m above all that, but that’s only because I think I’m justified in the unkind things I have to say about people who deserve it. I’ve gone ballistic on that crazy dentist in Minnesota who killed Cecil the lion. And I’ve spent a lot of time railing against the police officer who arrested Sandra Bland in Texas. I’ve been all over Bill Cosby’s case, and don’t get me started on Donald Trump. I’ve derided them in a way that clearly shows I don’t see them as human beings who have feelings like me.

But the thing is, these are all human beings. Yes, they’ve messed up and there are consequences for their actions, but they’re human beings, created in the image of God and loved by God just as surely as I am.

And the fact is, I mess up, too. I’ve done stupid things that have hurt other people. I’ve been unkind. I’ve made passive aggressive digs at people. There are times when I’ve been downright mean. I’ve fallen far short of the person I know God created me to be.

Now, I have a suspicion I’m not the only person who struggles with this. And that’s why a passage like this week’s lectionary reading from Ephesians (4:25-5:2) smacks me right between the eyes.

“So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

The writer of Ephesians is describing what the new life in Christ looked like for the church. It wasn't business as usual. There was something that set them apart from the way people related to one another in the world around them. They were called to live in love, to love as Christ loved.

It wasn’t a call to be obedient to a new set of commandments; it was about a responsibility they had for building up the Body of Christ. So that, as they considered the way they treated one another, the question to ask became: “Is this building up the Body of Christ?” If behavior wasn’t building up the body of Christ, it had no place in the community.

It’s still a good question to ask. But I’d like to take it a step further. The way we treat one another in Christian community isn’t just something that sets us apart from the rest of the world and it’s not just for the sake of building up the Body. It also prepares us to engage with people outside the Body of Christ for the sake of transforming the world around us.

Back when I was a serious musician, I used to practice my flute for hours and hours. And I developed a habit that was something like a little temper tantrum whenever I messed up. I would be playing along, I’d make a mistake, and I’d stop and just play a bunch of notes in gibberish as a way to release my frustration. It was like a piano player who is playing along, makes a mistake and stops what they’re playing to bang on the piano in frustration. I did it a lot when I practiced.

When I was in high school, I played piccolo with a local symphony orchestra that had all the professional musicians and music teachers in it. It was a big deal to be doing this as a high school student. Well, we played one piece that had two piccolo solos that were runs that went soaring into the stratosphere. At the concert, I got the first one, no problem. When it came time for the second one, I was going up the run, missed a note, and lost my way. And do you know what I did? I went into my musical gibberish. It was just awful and probably the most embarrassing moment of my life. Why did I do that? Well, it’s what I had been practicing for years, and when I was in a moment of panic, that’s where I went without thinking. It was my default setting.

Loving the way it’s described in this passage from Ephesians isn’t something that comes naturally for us. We have to practice it. If we think we understand it and can do it when it’s important, but haven’t practiced it, when the time comes, we’ll do what we’ve practiced.

In our life together, it isn’t only important to practice love so that we can build up the body of Christ, it’s also important to practice love with one another so that when we’re away from our faith community, and we’re stressed and irritated and ready to lash out, and we automatically go to our default setting… that default setting is the one we’ve practiced over and over again with one another. Love.