by Janet Kaplan, a poet, writer and poetry professor living and worshiping in Brooklyn, New York
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I give thanks to God always for you because of the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him with all speech and all knowledge--even as the testimony to Christ was confirmed among you--so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ; who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
One of the many things I love about St. Paul’s letter to the people of the church in Corinth is that he begins it with words of gratitude. He thanks God for their existence, for enriching them with speech and knowledge of Christ Jesus, for giving them spiritual gifts, and for sustaining them. He reminds them that God is faithful. And then, like a good parent reminding his children of his love before a scolding, Paul admonishes them for their divisive behavior.
Because I’m no St. Paul—understatement of the year—I often forget to thank God for my community, my family and friends. I forget that others are not here to be admonished—and certainly not by the likes of me—and certainly not unless they are truly loved! And let’s not talk about the judgments that surface automatically about my fellow human beings on the subway, in crowded supermarkets, and even in the park. (Doesn’t anybody know that ducks and geese shouldn’t eat bread!) And then there are the automatic judgments about those whose political views are “not what they should be”—in other words, not like mine. I shudder to think what Paul would say about such foolishness!
Of course going around judgmental and angry all day doesn’t feel very good. Perhaps for this selfish reason, among others, I began a Lectio Divina and Centering Prayer practice about a year ago that, with God’s grace, is beginning to bear fruit.
Since July, my 89-year-old father has been in and out of a rehab facility in the Bronx, following one ailment after another. The facility was founded by Carmelite sisters in 1929 (the year my father was born); on the wall above each resident’s nightstand is a Christian calendar with monthly Biblical passages and illustrations. There’s also a brightly colored print of a flowing-haired Jesus. I don’t know if my Jewish father has ever been aware of these things, but I enjoy reading the passages and often find some comfort in the illustrations. One afternoon several weeks ago, my father had fallen asleep and I was reading in the armchair next to his bed. The room divider was closed but I could still hear my father’s roommate in conversation with a visitor. The men were talking politics, and, well, there went my blood—boiling over with indignant fury. They confessed their support for their political leaders and bemoaned how unfairly he was being treated by the “other side.” They talked about their own local church and how good it was that "everybody they knew there" agreed with them. I looked up at the calendar. Mary, interrupted while deep in prayer, had turned to hear the angel Gabriel deliver the message of her new life—of our new life.
I’d spent the preceding day at a Centering Prayer retreat offered by Lindsay Boyer in Brooklyn Heights; perhaps that’s why it was easier than usual to open to God’s message and surrender to it. As the men talked, my state went from indignation (fear, really, of these unknown others) to pity: these men were vulnerable to the same darkness that can so easily cover us all. And my heart swelled. Then the visitor began to talk about his son. Several years back, his son had announced that he was now an atheist. “Just to spite me,” said the visitor. It seemed that father and son were no longer speaking. They were divided, estranged. My heart felt that it would break.
The visitor had to pass my father’s side of the room to get to the door. There was a shuffle as the room-dividing curtain opened and I saw him for the first time. He was in his forties, I’d guess—still so young—and yet there was a hardness in his eyes I recognized; I’d seen it in nearly every cynical and hurting person I’d ever met. I rose from my chair, extended my hand, and apologized for having overheard his conversation. And then I said something unimaginable for my old self to have said: “Don’t give up on your son. Please, please don’t.” The youngish man looked at my frail, sleeping father. He looked at me. Something clicked. We both had tears. “I don’t know…. Well, maybe,” he said.
Sometimes I think we’re here to be angels for others who least expect us—and when we least expect that that’s what we’re doing! There are divisions in our world. There have always been divisions among people. There are divisions within ourselves when we dwell in darkness, apart from God. Paul, who was once a Pharisee and persecutor of Christian Jews, probably knew that better than most. And Paul knew that God asks us to repair our hearts, to make whole what has been divided. Paul would have said to that visitor, “I give thanks to God always for you because of the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus.” Amen.