Fooled by Loneliness

Fooled by Loneliness
Rev. Michael Livingston
John 17:6-19

I’m in high school, ninth grade.  Ninety pounds, 5’5…maybe.  I’m trying out for the basketball team, not the varsity, or the Jr. Varsity, the C team.  Coach is putting us through drills, shooting, passing, defense, cutting, running, jumping.  He separates us, “You go over there, and you go home.”  I was certain he sent me over there—so that’s where I went.  That’s where those who made the team were playing together.  I joined them relieved, proudly.  And I played freely…and well.  When the coach finished he came over and watched us playing.  Now he knew what I didn’t—he had cut me.  But he saw me playing so well…he kept me on the team.  That’s the season I didn’t miss a free throw all year…made all nine of them.

I’m eternally filled with hope, just created that way.  It’s in my bones, my genes, my heart and mind.  Call me names, ridicule me, criticize me, talk about me, turn your back on me, disagree with me:  Help yourself.  I’m not going anywhere, won’t be crushed, depressed, forlorn.  I’m coming back for more, not letting go, waiting for change, for reconciliation, for the sun to shine again, to come from behind the clouds and shower me, you, us, with light, clarity, warmth, a vision for how we get to the next moment, together.

I don’t know loneliness, never really have.  I had a moment in seminary, one dark night of the soul that produced a notebook of really bad poetry—but I managed to graduate anyway and here I am today—still at it.  Life, ministry, is this wonderful challenging essential journey we take together.  But I know that is not the experience everyone has.

Eunice Kathleen Waymon wanted to be a classical pianist.  She was gifted.  A prodigy.  The people of her town, Tryon, NC raised money to help her become the first black woman concert pianist.  Now if she had become what she wanted, playing the music she wanted to play, felt born to play: Bach, Shubert, Chopin: we would never have had the pleasure of hearing an amazing voice sing: Four Women, I Put a Spell on You, Everything Must Change, I Loves You Porgy, To be Young Gifted and Black.

But we do because Eunice was a young black girl and the Curtis Institute of Music would not admit her to their program. …”I knew I was good enough…it was because I was black.  I never really got over that jolt of racism at that time.”  Her family had moved to Philadelphia in expectation of her admission—she had to get a job so she sang in clubs and bars and changed her name so her preacher mother wouldn’t find out.  So Eunice became Nina…Simone.  Much later in an interview she was asked if she got lonely, “…Extremely, extremely lonely.”

In that interview she was asked what “freedom” meant to her.  She fumbled around without much conviction, “Well, that like being asked what love is, and you can’t really describe it…”  Then all of a sudden she said “I’ll tell you what freedom is to me, no fear, I mean really, no fear.  I’ve had a couple of times on stage when I really felt free, now that’s something else!  If I could have that…half of my life…”

Alone, yes.  You, me, all of us.  We need time alone.  We need silence from the noise, the images, the dinging and ringing of alerts, texts, email coming in and going out.  We need space and time apart from the bombardment of a frenetic world braying, honking, bleeping, crashing, powering up and down, skidding and bumping…Each of us needs to think, process, feel, look and see what is around us and inside us.  We are nourished by moments of calm darkness away from the stark glare of smart phones, the 1080p television, tablet and smart phone screens we seem unable to do without.  We need to read, study, learn, and understand. What is this about?  Why am I here?  What is my purpose?  How am I to react to what happens to me and others in the world, to relate to the stranger, the enemy, the other?  What does freedom mean to me?

You can’t be told this.  You can’t be given answers.  You can’t assume without exploration and analysis.  You can’t decide without information, without facts, without regard for context, history, truth.  We can’t follow blindly without critical review.  That’s how we get confederate flags flying over public places, tattooed on bodies, stuck on the bumpers of pickup trucks a century and a half after the death dealing barbarity of slavery was, we thought, ended by the Civil War—only to be survived by an uncivil peace, which was no peace.

That’s how lies become, not truth, but ironically, fake news—maybe we ought to rename fake news—Trump news, upon which structures of oppression feed and grow into systemic life suppressing practices accepted as fair and just. Normal. That’s how women are battered and silenced, gays, lesbians and transgendered persons are rendered less than, other, unworthy.  James Byrd Jr. was lynched by white supremacists in Jasper, TX, June of 1998, Matthew Shepherd’s lynching was in Laramie, Wyoming, four months later.  I think of them together, fused, seared in my mind.

That’s how Trump gets elected.  Racism, materialism, militarism are like asbestos in the framing of our democracy, poisoning from within, and we know it’s there, we just won’t do anything about it.  Those who don’t fight it, or don’t care, just keep breathing and braying and the noise blunts our sensibilities, soils our humanity, breeds fear and insecurity, fractures human community.

We need time alone, each one of us.  To grow up.  We need what Henri Nouwen called “the discipline of silence” in order to mature into the healthy human beings we can become, through silence, meditation, prayer, emersion in the world of nature with the power to heal, to nurture awe at a planet in a universe of sheer wonder, breathtaking beauty, immense power.

But loneliness, depresses, kills.  “The first three hours after Lisa was born were the most peaceful in my life.  I was in love with the world.  I loved being a mother.  I was a good mother.”  But loneliness, mental illness, poverty, beating and abuse conspired to bring Nina down…and she was a magnificent talent, gifted beyond measure.  Many, many more today, without her talent still suffer in poverty in this world of plenty.  Thank God for the New Poor People’s Campaign, these good folks traveling to Albany tomorrow, joining thousands of others in many states marching to say No more!

“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world…for the words you gave …me I have given…them…and they…know…in truth.”  Our passage is a prayer, from the mind to the heart.  From divinity to divinity with humanity listening in.  It’s a warm shower of love, bath oils and bubbles.  It’s pregnant with theology, you can’t read John without gestation.

But listen to what for me are the key words in this 13 verse passage—without the distraction of verbs, prepositions, punctuation, adjectives:  gave, world, gave, word, given, words, gave, given, truth, world, world, gave, yours, yours, yours, world, world, given, given, world, given, word, world, world, world, world, world, world, truth, word, truth, world, world, truth.

Two other Johannine phrases come to mind:  “In the beginning was the Word,” and “God so loved the world…”  What’s the point of all this giving, of so many mentions of the world?  Of truth and the word?  Surrounded by all of these references, right in the heart of the passage is the phrase at the heart of the ecumenical movement:  “…So that they may be one…” and a little later, “…so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves…” And at the end “…so I have sent them into the world.”  We are not to be fooled by loneliness.  We were meant to be one people, different as we are, in one human family, one world, grounded in truth, bound by a simple and profound love of God and one another.

To give this love, to know this love for others, to be this love for others, to share this love with all, to withhold this love from no one.  To transform this world, that is the perspective of our faith, it’s where “It’s coming from.”  Make my joy complete, that they may all be one.  We have so far to go.  Why not start on the Seventh Sunday in Eastertide, or Ascension Sunday, better known—this year—as Mother’s Day.  And why not continue tomorrow, maybe hundreds of thousands marching to state capitols, some getting arrested for justice, Jesus ascended, praying for us, over our marching feet, and our hearts whether joyous or burdened, Jesus praying—You are mine, you belong to God, all of you.  Take my word into the world, make my joy complete, be one people.  Can’t give up.  Til we get there.  Amen.