The deepest thing inside

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.

These are two lines written by Arab-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye, from a poem titled, Kindness.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.

Her words resonated deeply when I looked at a picture of three women at a funeral service sometime on Friday, somewhere in Egypt. I saw their anguished faces, and for moments I was certain I could hear their mournful wails. The story I read said that gunmen had waved down a bus filled with pilgrims as it wended its way down a dusty side-road in the desert, headed toward a monastery. Dressed in military fatigues and claiming to be security officers, the gunmen ordered the passengers to get out. They separated the men from the women and children, and instructed them to surrender their mobile phones. They told the men to recite the shahada, the Islamic declaration of faith. When the men refused, the gunmen opened fire. At least 28 people were killed, several with a single shot to the head. Several of the dead were children. A local leader who visited victims of the attack on Friday said, “By the time they killed half of the people, the terrorists saw cars coming in the distance and we think that that is what saved the rest. They did not have time to kill them all. They just shot at them randomly and then fled.” More than 100 people have died since December in similar attacks targeting Coptic Christians in Egypt.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.

When Jesus gathered at table with his disciples one last time before he was betrayed and arrested, he prepared them for his departure. He washed their feet, which for many of them, I imagine, was the one teaching that contained all the others: love embodied in humble service. He also spoke that night in long threads of words and sayings, metaphors and images, folding and unfolding, telling them who he was and who they were, and how the Spirit of truth would come and be with them forever, to remind them who he was and who they in turn were because they belonged to him like branches to a vine. His final words to them were, “In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world” (John 16:33). I don’t know if the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt is reading from the Gospel according to John on this Sunday. I pray that they are not left comfortless in their sorrow, that they draw courage from the knowledge that God is no stranger to their sufferings and that love has conquered the world.

On the cross, God in Christ has embraced us in our violent desire to live outside the communion of life in a world of our own making. On the cross, God in Christ has embraced us in vulnerable love to draw us back into the communion of life, not with the force of coercion, but by absorbing the violence of our sin and disclosing the depth of divine love and forgiveness. “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” Jesus taught the disciples—and we are still only beginning to understand that God does indeed love the world by embracing us in our enmity and calling us friends long before we know how to do what Jesus commands (see John 15:13-14).

His final words to the disciples that night were, “In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world.” And after Jesus had spoken these words, he prayed. And for many of us, I imagine, overhearing Jesus pray is the one teaching that contains all the others: we are given a glimpse of the intimacy that marks the union of Jesus and the one he called Father. This is the life that is nothing but life. This is what human beings have been created for: this intimacy, this deep familiarity, this communion with the Giver of life. “And this is eternal life,” we overhear him say, “that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Eternal life is a life shaped by the knowledge of God as revealed in Jesus. That’s not the wikipedia kind of knowledge, the knowing-everything-there-is-to-know-about-God kind of knowledge, but a knowing of God and a being-known by God that is the relationship between lover and beloved. “No one has ever seen God,” we read in John 1:18. “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” His whole life reveals who God is and how deeply God loves the world.

At the beginning of his ministry, the wine gave out at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. Jesus told the servants to fill large stone jars with water, and it turned into wine, and the world said, “Wow!” He revealed his glory, the power of God, and his disciples believed in him.

At the end of his ministry, his friend Lazarus of Bethany became ill and died. Three days later, Jesus stood outside the tomb and shouted, “Lazarus, come out!” and he came out, and the world said, “Wow!” He revealed his glory, the power of God, and many in Bethany believed in him.

When Jesus was crucified, he said, “It is finished.” He glorified God by finishing the work God gave him to do. He bowed his head and gave up his spirit, and the world said— nothing. Laying down his life, Jesus gave himself completely so that the world may know the depth of love that unites him and the Father, the same love with which God embraces the world to draw all of creation into the joyful communion of life.

John narrates the good news of Jesus by using words which are in themselves quite ordinary, words like name, world, and word, but which carry extraordinary cargoes of connotations. Most of us catch those connotations only after having heard or read the whole narrative several times, which can make hearing only snippets of the text a bit frustrating. In today’s passage, though, it’s a simple verb – it almost goes unnoticed among the weighty nouns – that simply tells who God is by telling what God does: it’s the verb to give. Eleven times it rings in this passage like a bell, it sounds like a drum beat, like the heart beat of God, the heart beat of life. “You have given, you gave, you have given, you gave, you have given, … I have given and they have received.” As we are drawn into the communion of life of Father, Son and Spirit, we live in the rhythm of receiving and giving the love that makes all things one.

Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12 ). Now we, in our life together and in our witness in the world, reveal the character of God—here in Nashville, in Portland, and in Egypt. Human beings do not readily recognize the image of God in the face of those who are not in our own image. Only love can open our eyes.

The sister of one of the two men stabbed to death on a Portland train wrote in a family statement,

We lost him in a senseless act that brought close to home the insidious rift of prejudice and intolerance that is too familiar, too common. He was resolute in his conduct (and) respect of all people … In his final act of bravery, he held true to what he believed is the way forward. … We ask that in honor of his memory, we use this tragedy as an opportunity for reflection and change. We choose love.

These are the closing lines from Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, Kindness:

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

 

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