Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, “What are you doing for others? Martin Luther King, Jr.
I finally got out the window spray and cleaned the mirror I use every morning. It’s a really cool mirror with magnification on one side and ‘normal’ on the other. Not only is it mounted on the wall at just my height, it is hard wired so I can flip the switch and light it up. The thing is, I liked it better before I cleaned it. Much like the effect of an airbrushed photo, the fine layer of dust muted my uneven skin tones, wrinkles and pores sending me blissfully into the world with an unrealistic modicum of perspective regarding my appearance as related to my chronological age. Ahhhh – the joy of living in ignorance…
Ignorance is an interesting word. It refers to a lack of knowledge about something. I guess, like my mirror experience, that can be a good thing. But it can also be detrimental. I can wish all day long for health. But, if I am ignorant about the correlation between diet, exercise, relaxation, attitude and disease prevention, I will be ineffective in maximizing my body’s potential for longevity. There is some knowledge that we simply need to accept as our responsibility and not allow ignorance to blossom with the result of harm to others or ourselves.
Several years ago I was asked about the wording of The Confession of Sin used weekly in the Holy Eucharist. (Book of Common Prayer, p. 360) The confession begins with: Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word and deed by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. Most of us can point to a thing or two we have thought, said or done that was less than what might be considered a good thing. And, within that knowledge we can choose to ask for mercy or go on as if our behavior was either acceptable or it didn’t matter. The problem stemmed from the part of the confession that refers to the things we have left undone. There is only so much time! As it is, we must triage the demands of life so the important issues are taken care of. Does this mean that I’m not doing enough? What more can there be and if I have to ask, how can I be held accountable for something I don’t even know? Or am I responsible for something that didn’t make the cut for my time and attention? Certainly my ignorance of a situation shouldn’t be used against me!
There it is again…ignorance. Only this time it has to do with something far more serious than mirrors or healthy life practices. This time it has to do with the core of who we are as we live in this world created by the One who longs for the delight we will experience if we live as we were created to live.
The next line of the confession speaks to the nature of deeds and offers a hint toward answering the question: We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. What we have done is not loved God more than all that surrounds us. That’s hard! We are bombarded with some pretty cool stuff and awesome people! Sometimes God seems so distant that it’s easy to forget God is the essence of all goodness that we experience every minute of every day. Additionally, that part about not loving our neighbors as ourselves… I mean, I try! Maybe I missed someone’s birthday or didn’t send a note when they were in need of encouragement. Certainly I can get a free pass because I was busy with other important things! Maybe I didn’t know something was that necessary…maybe I was just ignorant…
Ignorance. There it is again. It is so easy to sit in the comfort of our own lives reassuring ourselves that we are good, or right, or entitled, or wronged, or justified, or unjustifiably accused or whatever it is that our hope or our rant for the day confirms. I have been known to become absorbed in the comments listed following online articles that can be viewed as either liberal or as conservative. The comments themselves are often diametrically opposed, yet the nature of the comments contain striking and unfortunate similarities. It’s as if like-minded people flock together to accuse the other side of being narrow-minded puppets of some crazy agenda that has nothing to do with the reality of either polarized opinion. Ultimately, neither side knows anything about the other, yet both seem to purport an in-depth knowledge of the other side and why they are simply wrong to think the way they think. Ignorance.
The more I learn about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the more convinced I am that he is someone I would invite to my fantasy dinner party. You know, the one where you get to ask whomever you would like to talk to from anytime in history. Dr. King’s insights into right living are profound and only surpassed by his ability to express them in easily understood phrases that invoke introspection and action.
It isn’t about who is right and who is wrong anymore than it should be about skin tone, gender or sexual orientation. It’s about what are you doing for others. Plain and simple. Do you love your neighbor as yourself? Are you looking at your own attitudes about others through the dingy haze of a dirty mirror or do you know what your prejudices and opinions really are? Do you know your neighbor or do you only know what you believe based on stereotypes and generalizations?
The confession then asks for mercy and acknowledges the desire to repent. To repent is to turn away from that which is wrong and keep moving further and further away from it. This is where we look to Jesus for perspective. You see, unlike most of us, Jesus didn’t base his compassion on judgment. The woman at the well didn’t need to change her life before Jesus spoke with her. The tax collector didn’t need to find another job before Jesus sat at his dinner table and shared a meal. He spoke with, learned about and accepted them just as they were in the complicated place life experiences designed for them. It was in the shelter of Christ’s love that they learned new ideas, opinions and ways of life.
You see, to love your neighbor as yourself is to learn about him or her so that we can begin to respond to their beliefs and motivation with sensitivity and understanding. It is also learning about yourself enough so that your own ignorance doesn’t get in the way.
John Newton summed it up in the first lines of Amazing Grace:
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
It is when we open our hearts to learning about another, whether it is an individual or a culture, that we will begin to see – really see – their situation and subsequently we will be able to do what needs to be done with love.