Life is with people

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Life is With People is a book I read in college. I’ve never forgotten the title because it’s so true. The book was specifically about Jewish communities throughout history, and how the idea of community is woven so completely into the fabric of Jewish life that it never occurs to them to question the value of it.

I plodded through the book then – it was required reading for a Jewish Studies course I was taking; the course was great, but the book was not – and beyond the simple description I just gave, I don’t remember a thing about it, except that the cover was bright orange. I think of the title often, though.

Here’s the thing: my Aquarian heart knows that life is with people. I was born knowing that. Aquarians are hard-wired for brotherhood, sisterhood, neighborhood; whatever ‘hood you want to name. When in Sunday school they told me that Jesus asked me to love my neighbor as myself, I got it. I did then, and I do now. I embrace the idea of community, completely, wholly, happily.

Exclusion makes me angry. I can sniff it a mile away, and it always turns my stomach. The idea that some people are acceptable, and others are not – for any reason – is simply ridiculous to me. More than ridiculous, it is repulsive. Exclusion requires judgment, intolerance, and fear. People cite all kinds of reasons for exclusion – most often morality – but let’s be clear: it’s about ignorance and fear, and nothing else. There is nothing moral about prejudice. The Bible, supposedly the last word (no pun intended) on morality is pretty clear on this point, too: Judge not, lest ye be judged.

I don’t find any ambiguity in that statement at all. Same as “love thy neighbor as thyself.” Clear, concise; no room for misunderstanding. Is there?

Is there?

I was a card-carrying, singing-in-the-choir Episcopalian for most of my life. I explored every other religion/belief system/moral tenet out there when I was a young adult. Some resonated with me, others did not. I took what had meaning for me and left the rest. So I had sort of a hybrid personal religion, but I always maintained ties with Christianity in general, and the Episcopal church in particular.

Until 10 years ago, or so. I still love the Episcopal church in general, especially the little one in my tiny town. My parents were married there, I was baptized and confirmed there. I really did sing in the choir. When I got older, and understood the poetry and beauty in the liturgy, I loved it even more. I loved the community spirit of the congregation. I loved coffee hour. I looked forward to Sunday. I was a believer, baby!

I believed in God, though probably I defined that more broadly than even most of my pretty broad-minded-as-Christians-go fellow Episcopalians. And I believed in people – the power of the human spirit. The Episcopal church was the first to appoint an openly gay man as a bishop. Further evidence to me that these were my people. 

Then our beloved priest retired, and we got a new one from out east. He was a bigot, misogynist, and a homophobe. A man of God. Believed in Christ. Believed that people of color, women and LBGT people were less than God’s cherished creatures. He protested the appointment of Bishop Robinson, openly and vehemently. When our bishop came to visit the parish, he embarrassed us by spewing his hate following the Bishop’s speech to the congregation.

Yikes.

So I’m thinking, okay, this is a test of my belief that everyone has a place at the table. God has a sense of humor. He’s testing me.

All are welcome?

Okay, how about this guy?

I failed the test. I didn’t condemn the priest as human being, but I couldn’t deal with him and his hypocrisy every Sunday. The worst part was that I discovered that some of the congregants, many of whom I had known and loved since childhood, shared his beliefs.

It broke my heart. I stopped going.

Years later we got a new priest and I started going again, but it was different. It was tainted. I gave up after a couple of years. I realized finally that I no longer trusted any of it, including God.

Mainly I didn’t trust myself, and that’s what I had the most trouble with. Confronted with people who didn’t believe what I believe, I crumbled. Judge not, lest ye be judged. I couldn’t do it. I’m as much a hypocrite as that priest. I judge him for judging others.

Ack.

I believe there is a place for us all in our community, and yet, when it really comes down to it, there are people I would exclude, maybe. Ideas I would exclude, certainly. Clearly I have more to learn, more work to do. I’m challenged to accept intolerant, judgmental people as readily as I welcome people who think as I do, or I am just as intolerant. That’s the paradox. There’s no way around it.

Life is with people. They only way for us all to survive is to accept and live that. Everyone must be welcome, no matter what. We are each of us unique, and our challenge is to find our common ground and work together to benefit us all. Community.

No small thing.

And yet, everything.

 

What a ride

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My 97 year-old neighbor died last summer, and her memorial was this weekend. Her family had been our neighbors for 50+ years; almost all of my life. Her daughters were like older sisters to me. Our houses were 20 feet apart; our families were close in proximity and close in feeling. Now the house and Jean are gone. Her daughters sold the house soon after she died, and after Christmas this year an excavator came and knocked the whole thing down.

Almost 100 years old.  An orphan in England, she joined the RAF as a young woman, met and married an American serviceman, and immigrated to the US after WWII. She had six children, countless grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She worked hard, raised her kids, loved cooking and gardening. She had a picture of Queen Elizabeth in her living room.

And now she’s gone. There’s a big hole in our neighborhood. Something that has always been there is gone. Such a long and full life, and now it’s over. Life keeps moving on.

So on Saturday I attended a Catholic mass for the second time in my life. It was dedicated to Jean and her husband Clem, and following there was a buffet and family get-together in another part of the church. Four of her daughters and their kids and grandkids were there, and also another 50+ year neighbor couple, who I hadn’t seen in person for a number of years even though they still come back for the summer every year.

I was raised in the Episcopal church, so the Catholic Eucharist was familiar, though I didn’t really participate. I just don’t believe anymore, so I found it hard to say the prayers and sing the hymns. I sat in the pew and focused on being present and respectful, and I thought about Jean and Clem and the memories I had of life next door to their family, and about how much has changed.

In his homily, the priest mentioned that he would be performing a baptism following the mass. It struck me that in one part of the building we would be celebrating a very long life completed, and in another part a new life was being welcomed to the world.

There it was – the whole thing – start to finish – in one small church on a Saturday afternoon in May. Life keeps moving on. What will that baby see and experience in her life? What will life on this planet be like in 97 years? I wonder what the world was like when Jean was baptized in 1920? Could anyone then have imagined the way her life unfolded?

And the house that had always been there – what will fill that space? In another 10 years, who will remember the big yellow house and the big family who lived in it? Most likely there will be another house, another family. That’s the nature of life – it’s fleeting, and so are we. Nothing lasts forever, not even memories once there’s no one around to carry them anymore.

So I guess that’s what’s so appealing about religion, right? It reassures us that we will go on beyond the physical, beyond memory, even. Presumably God knows who we are and will remember us forever. In the mass Saturday, the priest proclaimed the “victory over death!” and everybody said, “Amen!” That “victory” is comforting when you fear death, fear loss of those you love.

So the mystery of life is less of a mystery to the believers, I guess. I’m not one of them, so I guess that means for me the mystery is unsolved. Lately I’m content to leave those questions unanswered. In each moment is the opportunity to experience life directly and appreciate what’s present and that’s where I want to be. In this moment. I have fond memories of the past, and I love to ponder the possibilities of the future sometimes, but mostly, I like being right here, right now.

Someday maybe, someone will be looking back over my life at the end and remembering me, and that would be nice. Maybe someone will even celebrate that I was here. There will be a point, however, where I am completely erased from memory, and that’s okay, too. I will have enjoyed my ride, but when it’s over it’ll be time for someone else to take my seat and have their turn. That is as it should be. Like a roller coaster, life blows by in a flash. The only way to get your money’s worth is to experience and appreciate it moment by moment. It’ll be over before you know it.

RIP Jean. I hope you got your money’s worth.