Getting It Wrong is How We Learn to Get It Right

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September 27, 2015

During my preparation for priesthood, I served as a Chaplain at the University of Arkansas Medical Center (UAMS) here in Little Rock.  That was a long time ago, but some of my experiences that summer have become life long touch points for me.

One evening a young woman delivered a beautiful baby boy.  He looked as normal and healthy as any baby you have ever seen, but he wasn’t.  He had a congenital defect which made it impossible for him to live outside his mother’s womb more than a few hours.  Tests prior to his birth had shown his condition, so the medical team and the parents knew what to expect.

When I arrived the mother was holding the baby.  She had been holding him for several hours even though his heart had stopped.  She was having a hard time letting him go.  It was a comfort for her to hold her baby, but for the young father and the rest of the family, these had been long and difficult hours.  They dreaded the coming of this sad time, but they were ready to say good-by.

They looked at me with hopeful glances and whispered pleas:  Chaplain, please tell her it is time to let go.  Frankly I was at a loss to know how to hurry her.  I wasn’t even sure it was a good idea.  Perhaps she needed more time with the precious baby she had carried for nine months, however difficult it was for the rest of the family to watch her grieve.

About that time, her grandfather came in.  He was a blustery southern Baptist preacher.  He went right to his granddaughter, put his hand on her shoulder, and he said, “Your baby will never have to suffer like the rest of us do.  He will be playing on streets of gold.  He will never have to play in the dirt.  He will be playing on streets of gold.”  “What?”  I thought to myself, as he pulled me into a concrete image of heaven.  No toes in squishy mud, no wet tickly grass beneath his feet, no roly polys and cicada shells to hunt.  Golden streets from John’s dream in the book of Revelation.  I was judging him – much like Jesus’ disciples who reacted against those “other” people in our lesson from Mark—the ones who were not in Jesus’ entourage, but were casting out demons in Jesus’ name any way.  The disciples were judging those outsiders and I was self-righteously thinking  that is no way to comfort a grieving mother!

Then I turned my attention to the young mother.  Her face had broken into a smile.  She kissed her baby good-by and handed him to the nurse as peacefully as you can imagine.  That day it became clear to me that there are many ways to think and talk about God.  There are many ways for Christians to make peace with the disappointments, heartbreaks and losses of our lives—there is plenty of room for our differences.  

There is no room in Jesus’ teaching for his followers to divide people into insiders and outsiders.  It is Jesus who binds us together, not our particular ways of expressing our faith.  What matters is whether or not our beliefs and our actions bring us into harmony with each other and deeper faith in God.

Jesus and Moses before him, countered fearful exclusion and inclusion regarding who is “doing it right.”  They addressed the heart of the matter:  who did these outsiders follow?  “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets,” said Moses--not just the ones I appointed.  And Jesus said, .. no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.”

I’ve never seen a more powerful healing word than that given by that southern Baptist preacher to his granddaughter.  He expressed his belief so differently from mine, I failed to catch what we held in common.  We both believed we would always be with God in this life and life beyond death.  In this life, our purpose is to become more Christ-like. We will fail if we are not open to a broader view, a bigger picture which includes those many people who are different from us.

You will remember when another of those riveting moments of self-recognition.  It happened to 15 yr. old Hazel Massery when President Eisenhower called up the National Guard to escort 9 black students into Central High.  Hazel did not think Elizabeth Eckford and the other black students should be allowed into her school.
Hazel was not alone, but she had the misfortune or the good fortune,
depending on how you look at it, to be captured on camera by a Democrat Gazette photographer.  People opposed to integration lined the path of the entering students escorted by the National Guard screaming racial slurs.  Hazel was screaming (apparently at the top of her lungs, by the expression on her face).  She was just a few feet away when Elizabeth walked by her.  Hazel’s expression showed the fierce hatred she felt at the forced opposition to what she believed about right and wrong.  She was certain she was right that these students should not be admitted to her school.

When the Democrat Gazette, once again on top of the story, interviewed
Hazel Massery, she said when she saw the evening news on television,
she was aghast at her terrible hate-filled face, and she was filled with shame and remorse.  God’s redeeming love was already beginning to work in her.  Finally, she said, “After 6 years of agony, I called Elizabeth to ask for and to receive forgiveness.”  How humiliated, but fortunate, each of us would be if we could see a snapshot of ourselves when we are at our worst.  Most all of us have those moments, if a bit less dramatic.

The Rev. Dr. Richard Holloway, a Scottish writer and former Bishop of
Edinburg in the Scottish Episcopal Church, said, “We are saved, not by getting it right, but by the love which redeems us while we are getting it wrong.  We no longer have to live defensively, only honestly.  It is all right not to have got it right:  ... it is understood.”  Moses’ appointed prophets, Jesus’ disciples, Hazel and I all had it wrong.  Getting it wrong is how we learn to get it right.

“Life, especially Christian life,” said Holloway, “is an experiment in human maturing.  Our God expects us to be trying things out, getting things wrong, finding out who we are:  and it is all taken care of, it is all part of the deal, part of the covenant between us and the God made known in Christ.”