Authority


He startled me. Looking up from my bright pink park bench I peered out of my thought cloud to see a man in a fedora taking off his suit jacket. I was thankful, though, that he had rested his bagged burrito on the bench next to me before settling his body into the same space mine was occupying. It gave me a chance to prepare myself. It reminded me of my vulnerability, of my humanity.

ImageThere we sat. Side by side, staring ahead while absorbing the sunshine. Me, finishing off my lamb gyro, him, digging into his bean and cheese burrito. All within 18 inches of each other. I had been so startled that I didn’t greet or even acknowledge him when he sat down. I had looked away, attempting to give a false sense of privacy in a situation when there was absolutely none to be had. Like in moments when people silently cram into an elevator and awkwardly pretend that they’re not standing so close together.

I was also thankful for the armrest in the middle of the bench that separated our bodies; the armrest that was probably designed so that the homeless wouldn’t be able to sleep on the bench at night. I felt a pang of guilt realizing I was benefiting from something intentionally structured to prevent others from giving into a basic need of their humanity.

The silence continued. He looked early 50’s, mixed — Asian and White perhaps? — graying hair peeking out from under his hat. Well dressed but not stylish. There was a steadiness about him, as if this was his usual lunch routine and I had interrupted it. I began to think how sad we were, abiding in the same space, participating in a common meal, but pretending as if we were in different realities.

“What has humanity come to?” I wondered, feeling the weight of my part in it as I remembered that I hadn’t initiating speaking to him. I began to think of ways to make a brief connection. Too late now to try to start a conversation, it’d be too awkward. Maybe I will wish him a good afternoon when I leave.

“What brings you to downtown?”

Startled again. I chuckled to myself. Yeah! Why do we attempt to heed these ridiculous social norms anyway?

“Oh, jury duty,” I answered, glancing at the looming building next to us.

The man with the fedora introduced himself as a judge, but one that doesn’t work with a jury. He described how essential jurors are to the judicial system and expressed his appreciation for my willingness to serve. I shared that I had already learned a lot about the process.

He asked what I did for a living and I obliged with my condensed version of I-went-to-nursing-school-but-now-work-in-Higher-Education.

“…at a private Christian institution.” I tacked on. He looked down at his burrito, half eaten. I launched into part two of my story: I-had-a-love-hate-relationship-with-nursing.

“It surprises me how many people go into nursing just for the money. I wouldn’t be able to handle that level of stress and politics just for that. I need to enjoy what I do,” I said. He perked up as I glanced over at him, wondering just how stuck he had become on the mention of Christianity.

“Yes, we always think we’ll find happiness in a retirement account or a nice car but they don’t seem to satisfy.”

“So true!” I nodded and paused, aware of the Spirit’s guidance. I took the plunge.

“What makes you happy?”

He nodded slowly, gathering his thoughts. His red tie was flung over his shoulder, out of the way of the burrito, exposing the tag for me to read. I studied his profile.

“Books. Quiet. And it sounds kind of weird, but solitude. I like to be able to just be alone with my thoughts. I’d like to travel more but it’s difficult when someone has to cover your caseload. But sometimes I just want to jump on a plane and go somewhere,” he answered. “What makes you happy?”

I chuckled. “A lot of the same things! I love to read, I love to learn. I’m beginning to appreciate solitude more as of recently.”

“I want to visit an abbey or one of those places where they don’t talk. I’m not religious but… spiritual.” He went on to say how much he would enjoy a structured experience of solitude. “They give you time to pray – I mean, you don’t have to pray – but I think I would.” He waved over a man in a suit walking by who greeted him with “Hey! Your Honor! It’s been a while!”

His Honor introduced me as a potential juror. They chatted about grabbing lunch, and the gym, and moving neighborhoods. We said goodbye to the man and I glanced at my phone, hoping I still had enough time to go through security without being late.

“Well, I should run,” I said, gathering up my purse and trash.

“Yes, I think we should to make it back in time,” he responded.

Should I call him “Your Honor”? Why are judges called that anyway? Hoping I wouldn’t offend, I decided against making reference to the authority he carries from his position and address him as I experienced him: a fellow human with whom I had made a connection.

“It was a pleasure meeting you,” realizing that we hadn’t exchanged names as I stuck out my hand. “I hope you get the chance to go to an abbey sometime.”

He shook my hand and smiled, bidding me goodbye. I left him on the bright pink park bench in all his humanity, but carried away a new reflection of the image of God with me.

The gym bleachers never become more comfortable to sit on. For five years of college I sat on them twice a week and now, as a staff member, I shifted to find a comfortable position as the Gospel Choir exited the stage on the gym floor. I turned my attention to the speaker being welcomed to the position of authority: behind the podium. A White male with multiple graduate degrees and a terminal degree, he represented the most common type of speaker to be seen in chapel. The epitome of knowledge and power, the hope of the future for championing conservative family values, this man was here to challenge university students to become godlier.

As they often do, the speaker opened his talk with a joke. …Except this was a joke about abusive husbands. Laughter immediately filled the gym but trailed off as the words sunk in and students paused – “Wait, was that…okay to say?”

I sat on that wooden bleacher – knees twisted, back aching – seething. Students I knew looked at me with shocked expressions; shaking their heads they whispered to each other. I think I croaked out “Not. Appropriate.” loud enough for several rows of people around me to hear. Hardly an adequate or appropriate response. But I was mad.

How often do we idolize those with Ph.D’s and decades of work experience as having all the answers? Of being the most valuable in our communities? Of being the most like Jesus?

My mind was with the students in the room that had experienced or were currently experiencing abuse. Their stories, their lives, their pain had been trivialized and reduced to a sound bite for entertainment value.

As chapel progressed I fought back my anger and resentment towards well-educated White men that seem to be championed as the future of the Church. I can’t say that I was very successful in doing so. But I was very aware that all that simmering ugly-junk was very much boiling in me, and that it was keeping me from listening to everything else the speaker was saying.

I had a choice. To write this man off as not having anything worthwhile to say, or to acknowledge that God may still speak through him despite his massive ignorance and lack of compassion. I wrestled with myself the remainder of the chapel.

Until I could see myself in him, I didn’t want to listen. Until I could acknowledge that I’m just as broken, I tuned him out. Until I could believe that God chooses to still speak through humans the moment after we wrong him and others around us, my ears were closed and my heart was cold.

Every day we choose who to listen to, and how to listen to them. We can write others off as not being experts, as not being eloquent, and as not having common ground with us. We can give into mockery and disregard of those who aren’t adept socially. We can choose to listen more readily and give more weight to the words of those who are wealthy, White, male, extroverted, and able-bodied.

Or we can believe that God can speak truth through anyone. Even those who are offensive to us, those who have no alphabet soup behind their name, and those who we disagree with. Those who stutter, those who don’t speak up, and those who are so different than us we don’t even know how to begin to get to know them. Those who smell, those whose physical disability makes us uncomfortable, and those who can’t quite seem to read the cues that we have somewhere else to be.

The image of God is in everyone – but we can choose to treat others with dignity or not. We can choose to take uncomfortable or angering situations and humanize all who are involved. We can choose to listen for God’s voice in the voice of others.

When I saw myself as that man, my ears cracked. When I remembered all the times I’ve offended and angered others, my heart thawed. When I owned the grace God gave and gives me, I began to hear him.

When we listen, we can know. When we know, we can understand. And when we understand, we can begin to love.

“You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.” – Jesus (Matthew 5:43-48)

Jesus teaches that loving our enemies brings life. Perhaps a step in this direction is to begin to listen to those we struggle with wanting to hear.