“If it is not about love, it is not about God.”
These words rang out Tuesday through the standing-room-only crowd in Graham Chapel at Washington University . The speaker, the Most Rev. Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, had the crowd hanging on his every syllable.
He’s that kind of preacher, the kind we don’t see often in the Episcopal Church: fiery, eloquent, poetic, and deeply shaped by the African-American tradition of rousing, rhythmic, call-and-response oratory that had even me shouting out the occasional “Amen!” when he really got going.
Curry was in town as a guest of the Danforth Center on Religion and Politics and was introduced by former Sen. John Danforth, himself both an Episcopal priest and a longtime politician.
The title of his talk was “Healing a House Divided,” a reference both to Abraham Lincoln’s famous speech and to the saying attributed to Jesus in all three synoptic Gospels: “A house that is divided against itself cannot stand.” The contemporary resonance, at this cultural moment of division and hyper-partisanship, was not lost on the audience.
Curry spoke eloquently and in no-nonsense terms about two main ideas: first, that this country needs a revival of relationships that will move us out of our self-selected communities of like-mindedness; and second, that we must reclaim the values and ideals we already share, across political divisions, and use those as the starting point for dialogue and creative problem-solving.
A revival of relationships and the practice of placing values over issues are not exactly earth-shattering new ideas, but they may be necessary starting points. Given how enthusiastically the crowd responded to his address, it seems clear that people really are desperate for voices of hope and for leaders who exhibit transparency and vulnerability.
Curry is not a large man, but his joy and his deep faith flow from him in such ready abundance that they easily fill any space he occupies. It is why I believe him when he says, “If I is not about love, it is not about God.” He is a person so clearly transformed by the love of God that such words don’t feel abstract or pious, but simply and obviously true.
The day after the lecture, a funny thing happened.
I received word that some stuff inside our church building had been damaged, most likely by children who were not being properly supervised. The damage was not going to be terribly expensive to fix, but it was annoying, especially as nobody has yet taken responsibility.
I have seen such minor incidents become Big Deals in congregations in the past, with new rules being imposed that restrict access and begin to limit certain groups from full participation in the life of the church, too often through subtle shaming and blaming.
For whatever reason, perhaps still feeling optimistic and mellow in the afterglow of Curry’s words, I responded to a rather anguished email about the situation with a light touch. (Trust me, a light touch is not always my strong suit.)
I made it clear that damaged stuff does not have to result in damaged relationships, although we all need to work harder at communication and mutual respect. The issue is still not fully resolved, but it feels as if the basis for how it will be resolved is fully in place — with a sense of proportion, responsibility and forbearance. If it’s not about love, it’s not about God. And if it’s not about God, then it has no place in our church!
Then, out of the blue, someone who had nothing whatsoever to do with inflicting the damage offered to replace one of the damaged items, for free, with something newer and better. It was an incredibly generous act from someone with limited resources who just wants to give a little back when she can. But that “little” feels like a lot to this grateful pastor.
Perhaps my example seems trite in the face of the enormous problems that face the world today.
Being gentle and forbearing, focusing on humor and compassion and our shared humanity, will not end war, bring enemies into conversation with one another, or feed a hungry world. Or will it?
I wonder — if in our every interaction, every day, we truly attempted to lead with kindness and understanding, how would the bigger problems ever find room to grow?
One thing I do know is that waiting for the other person or the other side to make the first move, to repent and repay us first in order to earn our forgiveness, is a recipe for stalemate, growing bitterness and hardness of heart.
As the good bishop said, “A revival of relationship may well be one of the keys to a revival of our democracy itself.” He certainly got an “Amen” out of me for that.
Dolan serves as rector of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Town and Country. She is a regular Faith Perspectives contributor to STLtoday.com/religion.