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Before you read this, a warning: Lent always flips me out, wrecks me.
Lent, our 40-day journey to Easter, begins this week. Our Easter story is an act of love none of us can ever fully comprehend. A man, filled to overflowing with God’s grace, offered himself wholly and completely to a world that did not know him or accept him. He poured his blood into our brokenness as a healing balm. During Lent, I experience that incredible sacrifice as if it were happening now, in real-time. At one point, Jesus threatened that if his ministry were to stop “the stones would cry out” (Luke 19). During Lent, I hear the stones cry out. They rumble on a daily basis in my relationships, in the day’s headlines, in nature, in my prayers, all calling for Christ. It’s a wild ride.
I have learned that it’s best if I have a focus, something intentional that can I cling to while Lent takes me on its tilt-a-whirl spin. This year I am using a question to guide me: “what does love look like today?” I pose that question every morning and then fasten my spiritual seatbelt and see how Lent responds.
I have been thinking about that question for a while. I think it is THE question of our faith. If God is love, what does love look like today in my life and in the world around me? How am I a witness to love? In what ways am I a participant? Love is expansive and diverse. The Valentines Day version of love is only one small expression of love. (Those flowers quickly wilt, and we gobble up the chocolate.) Love is much more. Love is mercy, forgiveness, compassion, sacrifice, truth-telling, humility, justice, courage and encouragement, kindness, ever-growing, fierce, grit, beauty, loyal, tenacity, compelling, and more.
In Matthew 19 Jesus specifically commanded us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. He was quoting Leviticus 19. This commandment is as old as our faith. In order to love my neighbors, I think I need to know them, hear their stories, and see what makes them smile and what brings tears to their eyes. Walk beside them when it is time to walk. Sit with them in silence over the things that have no words. So what does love look like when it comes to our neighbors?
I am white in a divided world. “White” is the box I check when some official form asks. (I am never quite sure why I am being asked that.) I grew up in northeast Iowa in a community where everyone pretty much looked like me. I have grown up and, for the most part, lived in a white bubble. This has limited the neighbors I encountered. I look around the world. I read. I watch the news. I have come to realize that I share the planet with many neighbors I don’t know, and might never know because of our rigid barriers of race. Our ideas and attitudes about race have denied all of us a whole experience of the neighborhood. Jesus told us to love our neighbors. I think I owe it to him to know my neighbors better.
So with that in mind, a few weeks ago, my husband and I headed south, to learn more about our neighbors, particularly our African American neighbors, to hear their stories, and see what makes them smile and what brings tears to their eyes. Sit with them in silence over the things that have no words.
First, we went to Tulsa. In 1921, Tulsa was home to a prosperous Black neighborhood called Greenwood. There were stores and professional services and schools. Members of the community-owned their own homes and enjoyed their neighborhoods. Greenwood was an enviable neighborhood. And then there was an incident. On May 30, 1921, a young Black man rode an elevator with a white woman. He allegedly said something inappropriate. The young man was arrested. Mobs formed around the courthouse where he was being held. Violence escalated. On June 1, Greenwood was looted and burned by white rioters. The governor declared martial law, and the National Guard was deployed. Within 24 hours, 35 city blocks of Greenwood were burned to the ground. Hundreds of people were injured and as many as 300 people were killed. The massacre was kept secret, lost to history, until recently. Today it is commemorated in the Greenwood Rising Cultural Center. The center opened a year ago and anticipated 30,000 visitors in its first year. 80,000 people have visited the museum in the last year. A lot of people want to know more about their neighbors.
We drove on to Little Rock, Arkansas. Prior to 1954, public schools were divided by race. They were intended to be separate but equal. They were anything but equal. Schools for Black children were underfunded and of poor quality. In 1954 the United States Supreme Court ruled that school segregation was unconstitutional and ordered the integration of public schools. The Little Rock Schools decided to end segregation gradually, taking no real action until 1957, when nine students forced the issue by enrolling at Central High School. When the students actually tried to enter the school, riots broke out. Eventually, President Eisenhower directed the 101st Airborne to escort the students to school. Resistance to integration continued throughout the school year. The nine students suffered daily abuse. The following summer the Arkansas governor ordered that all public high schools in Little Rock be closed for the '58-’59 school year. There was no graduating Class of 1959 at Central High School that year. Students from privileged white households went to private schools. Poorer students and Black students waited for the schools to reopen. Today the National Park Service operates a museum in the Central High School neighborhood.
We traveled on to Memphis where on the morning of April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was murdered on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. He was in Memphis to support the sanitation workers, the garbage men, who were on strike seeking basic workers’ benefits like paid sick leave and safe working conditions. The local newspaper published the name of the motel where King was staying. He stepped out on the balcony of the motel and was shot by a man staying at a boarding house across the street. The exterior of the motel has been preserved. The inside has been expanded and turned into the National Civil Rights Museum describing the Civil Rights movement and its continuing courageous struggle to give all people equal rights. One display includes the story of Edna Mae Griffin, a Des Moines, Iowa, resident. In 1948 she was denied service at Katz Drugs in downtown Des Moines because she was African American. She fought that battle and won.
While I was in Memphis, I couldn’t help but think about Tyre Nichols, the young Black man who was killed by police at a traffic stop in Memphis several weeks ago. Somewhere in this city, there was a mother who will never hug her son again. As I walked around the city I wondered if I walked by her house or the place where she works. There aren’t enough tears for that sort of sorrow.
These are my neighbors, maybe not geographically, but in the big, outstretched arms of Christ, we are neighbors. I need to learn about my neighbors. I, in no way, have found a solution to the deep racial divide in our country. I know that lessons of racial division and white privilege have sunk deep in my soul beyond my conscious perception, impact my actions, and will not be easily rooted out. Learning helps.
But simply learning facts is not enough. Jesus asked us to love our neighbors.
Loving is a life-long, soul-changing journey. Love is mercy, forgiveness, compassion, sacrifice, humility, justice, and more. It is demanding and rarely satisfied with the status quo. Love rejoices in the truth (1 Corinthians 13). When love meets evil, it is corrosive, chipping away at sharp edges.
Love is more than an emotion. It leads to action.
Loving our neighbors is just one part of a whole ecology of love. We are called to love the planet. Love justice. Love children. Love the aged. Love mercy. Love truth. Love the church. Love who we might become together. All of this is the gift of a loving God.
Lent has begun. We are passengers on the wild ride toward the cross and beyond. Once again, we witness the sacrifice God chose to reveal God’s self to us and the only survival strategy that can save us all.
I am stumbling through lent with a question: what does love look like today?
Cindy Hickman is an elder in the United Methodist Church. She received her MDiv at Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City. Being a pastor was a third career for her. She taught English in public schools and colleges for 17 years and later worked as a fundraiser for human services agencies. She is now retired from pulpit ministry. She regards herself as “a free agent for grace.” She supports clergy colleagues by preaching from time to time when they need a Sunday away. She fills her time caring for grandchildren, reading, writing, and supporting causes she believes in.