Relentlessly optimistic

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Five years ago today, I buried my mother. For 47 years, she was married to my father. It was not a marriage without struggles. Like most middle-class families of the ‘50s and ‘60s, we had our dysfunction, our issues, our worries and our periods of pain. Much was self-inflicted. In the midst of this, my mother kept her sense of humor, her love of the living Christ and her joy of hope. It became her legacy of positive thinking and went well beyond talk of glasses being half full or half empty.

I embrace that legacy and clearly hear her words, “David, always remember, even if all you have is a drop in that glass, it’s a start.”

At my darkest moment, she met me on my knees, and we prayed. As she ended her prayer, Mama leaned over to me and whispered, “Never, ever give up. God created you in His image, and you are His. He will see you through this … your glass is overflowing … drink from the love God gives you.”

Those words were spoken 26 years ago, and I hear them just as clearly today.

As I walk the campus of the University of Kent and listen to the orchestra of voices that make up the Lambeth Conference, again I hear my mother’s words.

This time, the accent is a bit different. It’s not the blend of southern Alabama and middle Tennessee. It’s now a blend of southern California, Canadian, African, Indian, English and Asian. The blend also sounds Scottish, Irish and Chinese. Those are just part of the blends I’ve heard in the past two days! I’m sure many more are here, as well.

Those voices represent diversity. Diversity of skin tone, dress, hair styles, clothing and the like. Perhaps more deeply, the diversity is of thinking and sharing and acting on what God has called us to do.

I heard several stories today. None had anything to do with the current struggles of the Church. All had to do with the power of God through any struggle.

Iian Ernest is the Archbishop of the Indian Ocean Region. He spoke of physical threats by gun wielding police … all because he seeks to proclaim the Gospel.

Api Qilroho is the Bishop of Fiji. He talked of visiting his parishes … by boat. A small boat carrying three or four of his priests … overnight … just to get to parishioners in his diocese.

Rough waters? Sometimes, though the singing and praying of those priests keep them focused on what God has called them to be … .and to do.

Also overheard today were bits and pieces of stories … each with its own message of hope. On three separate occasions today in the different parts of campus, conversations found my ears speaking directly to my heart. In each of these conversations a recurring theme was spoken when these joyful words were joyfully used … “relentlessly optimistic.”

What wonderful words to hear from INSIDE the Lambeth Conference when words describing the opposite end of the spectrum are often spoken outside the conference.

As I processed the fact of hearing these words of optimism, I realized another theme I have often heard: “One cannot hear if one will not listen.” Oh my. I’m not sure about you, but I am sure about me and there are times I haven’t listened. Oh, I hear the words, but when I disagree with those words I cannot hear.

What I am sensing here in Canterbury as I talk with bishops, archbishops, priests, deacons and lay people is that the body of Christ is beginning to listen. It may not yet be as widespread as some of us would like, yet it is a beginning.

Yes, there are still voices wishing to impose their views. They talk longer and louder than most. Those voices fail to listen because they cannot hear. Even so, it appears there are more voices in the Bible study groups, more voices as they chat on campus, more voices over coffee, more voices sitting under the trees and admiring the beauty of God’s creation, even more voices in the pubs that are willing to listen to each other.

How else can we learn if we don’t listen?

On this day when I honor the memory of my mother, I met another young mother whose listening skills are still developing.

As I walked High Street in Canterbury and thought of the wonderful day I was given, I heard a young child crying. Her mother, probably early 20s, was pushing her 2-year-old in a stroller. The mother was agitated as the toddler spilled juice on her shirt.

“Stop that nonsense, and stop drinking like that!”

Her loudness stopped me.

“You know better,” she shouted.

Then, as this little child cried, her mother bellowed, “You stupid girl, stop it … right now!”

The mother looked up and saw me in my clerical collar standing there.

“May I help you?”

“No. She won’t listen to me, stupid child.”

“I don’t mean to intrude, but…”

“Why don’t you mind you own business, Father, the church doesn’t give a damn about me.”

“Oh, my child but we do … know we truly do.”

As she hurried away, the little girl leaned out and looked at me. Knowing God can carry the greatest whisper to any ears, I said through my tears, “You are not stupid … God loves you.”

At that moment, I was reminded of my mother’s love and how, instead of ever calling me stupid, she chose to whisper words of encouragement.

We in this mighty Church are not stupid. We may act in ways that others cannot and choose not to understand. We are doing a better job of listening, yet we (all of us) have such a long way to go.

We have our faults and flaws and raw humanity. Those can make us look weak, ineffective, even appalling. We need not lose touch with humanity. We need to listen.

When we do, we will realize God does not leave us static. God is always with us as we grow and change, which is both comforting and encouraging, even challenging.

As the day grew to a close, I attended Evensong at Canterbury Cathedral. Sitting across from me was an elderly man in a wheelchair. His daughters were with him. Caring for him. Moving him about. A quick study of this man revealed his difficulty in speaking, not hearing.

During the singing of the Psalm by the men and boys choir is a perfect opportunity for meditation. Something caused my eyes to open during the Gloria. And there, across from me, this man of mature years whose health has failed him, was mouthing … maybe even singing … “Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost…as it was in the beginning is now and shall be forever … Amen.”

The closing hymn of the Evensong was one used at The Lambeth Conference. The lyrics, written the year I was born, 1949, brought another set of tears to my eyes:

Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown, will you let my life be grown in you and in me?

Will you leave yourself behind if I but call your name?
Will you care for cruel and kind and never be the same?
Will you risk the hostile stare should your life attract or scare?
Will you let me answer prayer in you and me?

Lord, your summons echoes true when you but call me name.
Let me turn and follow you and never be the same.
In your company, I’ll go where your love and footsteps show.
Thus, I’ll move and live and grow in you and you in me.

The events of this day, all of them help me see God as both beacon and light, blinking a message I am not certain I understand, but follow I must.

In doing so, I will try and listen even more and am confident those who lead the Episcopal Church and the entire Anglican Community will do so as well.

What we hear may be astonishing. What I saw and heard today were.

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