Earlier this week, I was invited by our local synagogue to join them for Rosh Hashanah and asked to reflect on the notion of human decency. I was honored to spend the time with them, and I am grateful for their wide welcome and generous spirit of interfaith wisdom, even in the midst of a holy time.
Since that time, a number of folks have asked me to share what I said.
When Naomi asked me to come be with you today, she said, “We’d like you to talk about human decency.” Seemed easy enough. I mean, being a decent individual shouldn’t be all that hard. In fact, you might consider it a pretty low bar in the grand scheme of descriptions. You know, I wouldn’t say there’s all that much I’m great at, but eh, there’s a fair amount I’m decent at.
It turns out this topic has actually been on my mind for some time now. The current political climate has thrust this question of what it means to be decent into the limelight. And it’s actually an issue our little town in our little corner of our little state has faced head on in past months. But more on that in a minute.
In thinking about the notion of human decency, I’ve realized that it’s not what we need. What we need is human excellence toward one another. What we need is compassion for one another. What we need is a fundamental understanding that we are in it together. Mother Teresa of Calcutta once said, “If we have no peace, it’s because we’ve forgotten that we belong to each other.” I think she’s right.
Here it is: I don’t think God wants us to be decent to each other.
I think God wants us to be a blessing to each other.
Now, you just heard that I graduated with my Doctorate in Biblical Interpretation earlier this year. That paired with the fact that my life is dedicated, in part at least, to the stories we share in common—leads me to turn to scripture, to two of the most known figures in scripture in fact: Noah and Abraham.
Now the story of Noah has always been a gripping one for me, particularly when I grew up enough to read it for myself, and I realized just how grim it is. The nursery school, boat-and-rainbow paintings in my childhood nursery of these harrowing chapters of Genesis are not the whole story. Before we even get to the flood, we encounter a whole bit of scripture we could think of as the reasoning—the why of the flood.
When I moved to New England in the fall of 2012, the thing that I was most surprised by was not the local obsession with Dunkin’ Donuts. It wasn’t the pseudo-religion called Patriots Games. I’m not saying its idolatrous, but…its on the fence. It wasn’t even the stubborn, New England hardiness that plays chicken with cold temperatures and furnaces. The thing that surprised this Southern, Georgia boy who’d moved from the land of words pronounced with non-existent syllables the most when I moved to New England in the fall of 2012 was a single word: wicked.
Y’all say wicked. A lot. I suppose you could you say it a wicked lot.
Maybe it’s those witch trials so many years ago that cemented the word in the New England lexicon, I don’t know. But it’s here, and it’s here to stay. The reason it caught me so off guard is because where I grew up (and in most places that speak English if we’re honest) wicked means evil. And the place we encounter the word wicked first in Scripture is here in the story of Noah and his ark. Every Bible I’ve seen with headings has something like “THE WICKEDNESS OF HUMANITY” (that’s how I imagine it should be read) above this passage, above the “why” of the flood.
And in this bit of Noah’s story, we find two things. First we discover the WICKEDNESS OF HUMANITY. And God says some hard things about humanity, like “I am sorry that I have made them.” Now that’s a punch in the gut. But of all the wicked people, Noah and his family are the good guys—the righteous ones. And so God thinks, “how am I going to wipe out all the bad and save the good? I know. A Flood.” This is the Jon Chapman version of events.
And God asks, “Who can I get to build a boat to save the good from the flood? And he thought for a minute, and said…I Noah a guy.”
I know, I know. I had to get it in somewhere.
Anyway, God tells Noah his plan and then tells Noah what to do. That is, the second thing we discover before the actual flood are the actual plans of the ark. God is very specific. So specific, in fact, that a religious organization in Kentucky built a scale replica that you can go visit. It’s huge and “historic.” And just suffered significant damage by a rain storm. So you decide how God feels about it.
Anyway, we get so caught up in the details of this part of the story—in the cubits and wood type, in the wickedness and corruption and animals—that we forget this detail: Noah did it. Noah did what God told him to do.
Noah’s story teaches us that we experience God’s faithfulness most fully when we are obedient. We do what God tells us to do because God is God, and we aren’t.
If God tells you to build a boat, you better go buy a hammer.
So what is it then that God tells us to do? How do we live as God wants us to live? How to follow the call God has placed in our lives? How do we not become wicked again, and instead choose a more excellent, decent way.
At Westfield, we like to bless. We bless everything. Sneezes. Babies. Blankets. Animals. First responders. Caskets. Meals. Hands. Teachers. Each other. You name it. We bless it. We bless for two reasons. We bless because we believe that in blessing we lift people up, that we call God’s attention to them. And two: we bless because it makes us better. And it makes us better because the act of blessing draws not just God’s attention, but ours, too.
The act of bestowing a blessing, is an act of faithfulness that’s as old as our faiths themselves. One of the earliest places we encounter it in scripture—this notion of blessing—is in Genesis 12 with the story of the call of Abram.
There are six promises God makes to Abram, not yet Abraham, when God calls him. But those promises all bank on a big request. “Go from your country—the place you’ve grown up, your kindred, the people who raised you, and your father’s house—the very place your entire life, social, religious, economic life is centered—to the land I will show you,” God says.
That’s a big ask. But that big ask comes with big promises. Six in fact. “If you go,” God says, “I will 1) make you a great nation, 2) bless you, 3) make your name great, so that you will be a blessing, 4) bless those who bless you, 5) the one who curses you I will curse, and 6) In you all the families of the earth will be blessed.”
In short, God promises to bless.
In these short few verses we learn more than just the fact that Abram will be blessed. We learn why we bless, or at least how it works.
We bless because, as children of Abraham, inheritors of his faith, God has told us that who we bless God will bless. And that when we bless, the blessings multiply. Did you hear that bit? “In you all the families of the earth with be blessed,” scripture says. Blessing, then, isn’t an option. It’s an obligation—the holiest kind. It’s up to us to bless others because when we do those blessings expand and become greater than they first were.
My father-in-law will often reply when you thank him for something [read this as Southern as you can], “I just try to be a blessing.” He means it tongue-in-cheek, but the intent is a real one. And so I wonder what would happen if we, as people of faith, stopped thinking of it as being decent and instead decided to be a blessing. What would happen to this world, how would it change, if we lived to bless others?
Interestingly, this story of Abram and blessing teaches us another thing about living together: the one who curses you I will curse. Have you noticed that before? It’s an inversion of the previous sentiment of blessing. Instead of I will bless who you bless it’s the one who curses you I will curse. What doesn’t it say “who you curse I will curse.”
So what I’m saying is when someone cuts you off in traffic, no matter your vocabulary, whatever curses you throw their way won’t do a thing. Because it’s not about who you curse. In fact, I think scripture tells us that it’s not up to us to curse in the first place because those curses don’t do a thing.
Instead, it’s up to you and me to bless. That is, when we come to a cross roads the option we’ve got is one of blessing.
But someone will say, “I try to bless folks. I try to be decent, to be good, to take care of others. But I just don’t know that it matters. I don’t know that it’s working. I don’t know if it makes a difference. And I’m tired of waiting to see if it will.”
But here’s the thinking about blessing and decency—you have to be relentless for it to work. There’s a patience to it.
Back to Noah.
Have you ever been waiting for your order at some fast food joint and they have the timer behind the counter? You know the one. Usually it’s on the order screen, and it counts the seconds since you’ve ordered. I suppose it’s meant to motivate the workers to be speedy in their filling of orders, but I find its only real function is to aggravate my impatience. I see that timer, and watch those seconds add up and think, “What in the name of Shem, Ham, and Japheth is taking so long?” Those are Noah’s sons’ names if you missed it. It’s a joke, Sue!
The truth is that if that ridiculous timer isn’t there, I wouldn’t mind waiting. It wouldn’t bother me. But when I see the seconds, then minutes adding up, and it turns red and starts blinking my patience with waiting grows short.
Waiting when you hope something is coming is the worst. And Noah did a lot of waiting.
So much waiting, in fact, that he sent a bird out four different times before it had dried up enough to start over.
Here’s the thing about God. I believe God is faithful. I do. But God just because God is faithful doesn’t God is going to be faithful to your timeline.
In some black churches, there’s a tradition of call and response, when a preacher will say something and the whole congregation will reply. And one of my favorites is this: “God may not come when you want him,” the preacher would lead, “But he’s always on time,” the congregation nearly shouts back.
I think that’s the truth. God may not come when you want him to. No doubt Noah would’ve preferred to have those flood waters dried up weeks before they did. But God’s timing isn’t our timing. And God’s way isn’t our way.
So if we’re going to proclaim God’s faithfulness, that God is faithful—that God has a hand in blessing and decency and in this world at all, then we have rely on God’s time.
I don’t know about you, but watching our little town implode this summer over the high school mascot made me wish God would show up quicker than it seemed God was. It got nasty. Did you follow any of it? It’s not over yet, not by a long shot. But outside of the issue at stake, what we’ve encountered is a visceral, human reaction to questions of belonging and identity. And we’ve seen people be less than they can be.
Let me be clear: I think having robust conversation around challenging issues is essential to our progress as a community.
But it seems to me (and, I trust, some of you) that those conversations devolved into something worse. Instead of healthy engagement, they’ve become mud-slinging and, at times, hate-filled, tossing of opinion that make no space not just for alternate opinions, but the humanity of others. This is not the Killingly I know.
The Killingly I know is a generous one–one that helped my congregation rebuild one of the most iconic structures in the region when we couldn’t do it ourselves. The Killingly I know is one that shows up for each other when the unimaginable has happened. The Killingly I know cheers at little league games beside each other and pitches in to help each other and makes room for people who aren’t like you.
How do I know?
Because you made room for me. Here. This morning. And the folks in the community made room for me: a young pastor with hardly any experience from Georgia who seven years ago had never heard of this little town in this little corner of this little state.
I’m not going to weigh-in on the debate right now although as a person of faith I believe before you are part of any team or any school, you are above all else God’s and it is in God that we find our meaning and our purpose and our hope. But I do want to leave you with a few things about how we engage this conversation—some on the ground advice about how to be a blessing and be decent in a troubling time for our community. I vowed to walk with this town through it all, including moments like this. So here it is. Six ways to be a blessing—to be decent—in this situation.
1) People are people first. When engaging someone you disagree with, don’t forget their humanity. It’s the thing that binds us together. Disagree with someone. Fine. Don’t demean them or make them less than they are. Remember God’s promise to Abram. “I will curse the one who curses you.” Don’t curse people; don’t bring them down. Lift them up.
2) Decide what deserves your time and attention. Really fired up? Great! Go to the school board meeting. Tell them all about it. I bet they’ll be glad to hear from you. But remember that your time is a finite resource. And if you want to use it on social media arguing with people you don’t know in the comment sections of local pages, you can. But there’s more to life that proving you’re right. What would happen if you took that time and chose to love that person instead of fighting with them?
3) Pray about it. I know, I know. But I’m a pastor, and this legit helps. Christian, Jewish, Muslim, I don’t care. Taking a minute to think about whether or not you want to post a reply or escalate an argument might provide an opportunity for perspective. And asking for guidance in the next steps is never a bad idea.
4) You can’t speak for others; You can speak for yourself. Many, many, many comments I’ve encountered about this situation have made assertions for entire groups of people on both sides of this issue. The truth is none of us can speak for anyone but ourselves.
5) Look for the good. There’s so much heartbreak in the world, isn’t there? There’s so much to be distraught over, to worry about, to fret over. Don’t add to it. Instead, look for the good. I see it everyday. And I bet you do, too. Share it. Amplify it. Trumpet it. The world needs more good, more blessing; not more disdain, not more cursing.
6) Be kind. The truth is that we’re in the together. People are watching. Our kids are watching. Make them proud.
I know you didn’t come here for a lecture, and I don’t mean it to be. But the truth is that there are innumerable situations that we can’t do a thing about—countless circumstances that our decency or blessing won’t make a bit of difference in.
But there are some. And for the things we can care for, we must.
So that which is beyond our control, we give it to God. And the things within our control, we ask God to use us, to make us a channel of his peace, and—as my father-in-law reminds me all the time— try to be a blessing. Amen.