Center of the Universe

I had the honor and privilege to co-facilitate a strategic planning retreat for the vestry of my church. (The vestry of an Episcopal church, for those unfamiliar with the term, is the administrative team, made up of lay members, that has oversight of the “business” affairs of the congregation.)

My role was to lead an exploration of the talents of individuals and how they could best be combined to produce the most well-substantiated, innovative and tangible plan for fulfilling the goals of both spiritual contemplation and “right” action.

Preparation for the retreat gave me the opportunity to revisit my past experiences in team-building with families and in the corporate world and applying what I had learned in the context of the human spirit. In the process, I realized that it is the reverse of that, the attempt to bridge the gap between my spiritual “knowledge” and experiences and my everyday life, that has consumed me for the better part of 40 years.

I have to admit that I am a bit jaded, having swung from what Parker Palmer describes as idealism to corrosive cynicism many times. A child of the 60’s, I’ve watched a similar progression in American society that sometimes seems unending. My heart grieves that it is the source of my original idealism, the church, that became the focus of my cynicism, because it seemed and seems that when we exit our services, we leave our kindness and regard and our honor of other humans at the doors. It is as if we deposit our souls inside for safe-keeping instead of “going in peace to love and serve the Lord.”

What attracted me most to Jesus as a child were the stories of his living what he said, not in the synagogues, but down by the rivers, on the edges of the seas, on the dusty trails of Judea and Palestine, in the cities and the countryside, in the family compounds and marketplaces—those very places we walk every day as well. I have been Zaccheus, disenfranchised but still hopeful enough to climb a tree and watch, just in case there was something to talk about, only to be seen and acknowledged. I have been the woman at the well, anxious about the transparency of my failures, yet heartened to learn because of another’s encouragement that the penalties of those mistakes might not be the portent of my unworthiness of abundance. I have been paralyzed, and had the words, “Pick up your mat and walk,” stimulate my bravery to break free of the binding.

I have been crucified, too. I have offered the best of who I am, the best of what I know, the best of what I have to give and had it turned into an aberration. I have been accused, indicted and convicted by others of motivations that I do not own. I have been humiliated and ignored, raised up and applauded.

Each of us has at one time or another. Certainly the disciples and apostles had. We know Jesus was. We stop there, focused only on ourselves. We lick our proverbial wounds and parade our triumphs and accomplishments as if we were the centers of the universe.

But Jesus didn’t. And thank God he didn’t, because if he had, there would have been nothing to talk about.

Jesus the man knew well that a carpenter from Nazareth, a man of questionable origin born to a woman whose only claim to fame (in fact, her only claim to existence) lay in the fact that she had a very unusual son, was hardly the center of the universe. Paradoxically, it was the fact that he knew that he wasn’t the center of the universe that paved the way for him to become the center of the universe for thousands to come, an anointed representative of not just the center, but the very source of the universe. “The last shall be first,” he said. “The first shall be last.”

Jesus knew something.

I think it has something to do with empathy, his attention to those around him. I think it was an automatic response, when he saw the pain of others, to ask himself what he himself might need if he were in their condition, their circumstances—what he had needed when he’d felt that way himself. And having isolated for himself what those actions would be, he carried them out. Having identified what words from another might soothe a hunger, he said them. He was the hands, the feet, the voice of God.

He called us to do that too. For each other. For all those whom we touch. To offer each other, in each moment of encounter, the grace of being, for that moment, the center of another’s universe.

If we commit to do it—to think about it on the other side of the church threshold—it isn’t hard. He didn’t ask that much of us.

Sometimes, it’s a simple acknowledgment—a smile or nod at someone we pass on the sidewalk or meet in the doctor’s waiting room. Sometimes it’s noticing someone else approaching a door with a load and opening it. Sometimes it’s forgoing the movie we were planning to watch to attend a wake, or holding another when she cries. Sometimes it’s sharing half a sandwich with someone who didn’t have time to make lunch or giving a new winter coat or a set of dishes to a domestic violence shelter.

Sometimes it’s a word of congratulations to your sister, a word of thanks to the rector, a card unexpected, a public accolade for a job well done. The message is a simple one—I see you. You are important, valued, loved and I want you to know it. Funny, but when you feel loved, you want everybody else to as well. That’s an epidemic I, for one, would love to see.

Jesus was not loved because he was the center of the universe.  He was loved because he wasn’t—everybody else was. But the funny thing is that because he wasn’t…

He is.

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