Getting along with “them”
How many people here celebrated Valentine’s Day? The holiday is based on stories from the 3rd century A.D. during the reign of the Roman Emperor Claudius, who was apparently having difficulty recruiting new soldiers for his army. He went as far as discouraging marriage, with the thought that married men were less likely to enlist.
Legend says Valentine, a physician who’d become a Christian, and then a priest, was performing “underground” weddings, in resistance against the Roman Empire.
He was arrested and jailed. While in jail he befriended the jailer, who asked him to tutor his daughter, who was blind, and needed someone to read her lessons. Valentine and the daughter- some stories name her Julia, also became friends.
Emperor Claudius offered to pardon Valentine and set him free if he would renounce his Christian faith and agree to worship the Roman gods. Valentine refused, and encouraged Emperor Claudius to place his trust in Jesus. The emperor sentenced the priest to death.
Before he was killed, on February 14, 270, he wrote a last note to encourage Julia and to thank her for being his friend. The story says he signed the note: “From your Valentine.”
The historicity of this story is questionable. But it’s a good story. I was thinking about it this week because I like the idea that the rebellious priest, and the Emperor’s loyal jailer became friends.
I have visited prisons, all the way from a provincial minimum security correctional farm in Thunder Bay all the way up to the federal Super-Max penitentiary in Renous, New Brunswick, where they keep terrorists and serial killers. I was also a full-time prison chaplain for a summer, while I was in seminary in Saskatchewan.
None of the jails, prisons, remand, or juvenile detention centres I’ve been in are nice places, no matter what the people who think we are soft on crime will tell you.
I remember the feeling of walking through a heavy steel gate, hearing it clank closed behind me before the one in front rolls open, knowing I didn’t have the keys for any of the doors. I remember the orientation sessions I had when I started work at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre. The rules about what I could wear, what I could carry in my pockets, what I could talk about- and I was on staff.
When I hear people describing the public health rules, and social distancing, and requirements for masks and vaccines as imprisonment, I try hard not to roll my eyes. When I hear the claims that these things represent a loss of freedom- well, again, I have to respectfully disagree. We aren’t in jail. I’ve spent time in jails, and I can see the difference.
Valentine, who actually was in jail, found a way to get along with the person who held the keys. How did he do that? Why did he do that?
We heard some very challenging words from Jesus earlier:
“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” (Luke 6:27-38)
I test drove parts of this learning time at a chapel service at Harrowood on Wednesday. When I said, “Really, Jesus? We have to love our enemies?” The folks in the chapel laughed, and nodded their heads. The longer we live, the more experience we have with how hard it can be, to “love our enemies.”
I don’t think I actually have enemies, but I can think of people who are hard to get along with- and I am sure there are those who think of me that way.
With all that’s been happening in the world, I’ve been talking with some folks lately who say they have friends, neighbours, even family members with whom it’s better to stay away from certain topics, or else the nice conversation will turn into an argument.
Topics that are on the current no-fly list include: COVID-19, masks, vaccines, vaccine mandates, the trucker’s occupation of Parliament Hill, the protest at the Ambassador Bridge, The Prime Minister, the Premier of Ontario. That’s getting to be a long list.
How do we deal with the uncomfortable, uncomforting reality than in our families, with our neighbours, in our congregation, our community, there can be a wide range of opinions on these hot button topics, and strong feelings, and a tendency to speak from those feelings in dramatic ways?
Not just because it was Valentine’s Day on Monday, I think the answer has a lot to do with love. In the scripture I read, Jesus said there are no prizes for getting along with those we agree with- but that we are called to the far more challenging work of loving our enemies.
An image that has come up in my prayer time is that a family, a church, a community, a country, is a kind of container. It’s a container that needs to have room for all the people, but also all our highest values and ideals. It also has to have room for the often unseen, but very real presence of God, who is the source of our highest ideals, and best values.
We take time near the beginning of our worship services to model something I think is very important. We breathe, and quiet ourselves, and try to be open to the presence of something more, that we think of as the ultimate source of our higher ideals, and best values.
Values such as love, and respect, honesty and integrity, selflessness and kindness.
The struggle arises for me is when it seems like I might have to choose between a person, and our highest values.
What do I do, for example, when I hear someone say that all truckers are rednecks, or all politicians are liars? Those are dangerous, unfair, and unhelpful generalizations, that come from the same small part of our brain as statements that puts down everyone of a certain race, or religion, or skin colour.
Do I zip my lip and say nothing?
I might be tempted to keep quiet and wait for the uncomfortable moment to be over. I may be afraid that saying what I think will hurt someone’s feelings or make them upset and drive them away. I may be tempted to set aside my beliefs, my values, for the sake of keeping the person close.
But if I keep doing that, what happens?
The person stays close, but has also received the message, through my silent going along with things, that it’s okay to say things like that, to put down whole groups of people, or make broad sweeping claims that do more to disturb and alarm than to make the world a better place.
I don’t think that’s what Jesus had in mind when he said we are to love our enemies. How can it be love, if it isn’t based in honesty?
How can it be love, if each time I am with that person, I close myself down, to hide that part of me that worries they are going to say something hurtful and ridiculous, and I’ll have to work hard to zip my lip again?
I have to find a way for the container to be big enough for the person with the narrow attitude, with the bad joke, and for me, and my true feelings, and for the higher value, that all people are to be respected, and should be able to live free of being put down.
It may be up to me, to speak up for love, for respect, for kindness. To shine a little more of God’s light into our container. To remind myself, and everyone else, that God is with us, and that fear, small-mindedness, and scape-goating are never helpful.
So I have to find a way to say to the person- Friend, I care about you, but I am worried, and upset by what you said. I don’t agree with it. There is another way to see things.
That’s risky. They may not want to hear it. They may think they are being put down or rejected.
Jesus says love your enemies. He was able make friends with Roman Soldiers, and tax collectors, and leaders in the Jewish Temple, even though he saw the world, and people in it, differently.
Saint Valentine made friends with his jailer. I wonder how often in conversation with this employee of the Emperor he heard things that hurt or shocked or worried him, and he had to say take a breath. How many times did he have to pause, and think of a way to speak his truth, without being hurtful. How many times did he lose it, and get drawn into a unwinnable argument, that was probably more about biases and false assumptions than about reality?
Saint Valentine probably didn’t get it right all the time. Like you andI, he was human. I can imagine him feeling tired of actually being locked in, locked down. There may have been times when his own frustration, impatience, worry and fear got the best of him- like it can for each of us.
I remind myself that the love I need, the loving energy, comes from God. God can fill us up again, when our stores of love energy feel depleted. I also remind myself that God’s love for us is unconditional. God does not love us because we get everything right all the time, and say all the right things, and never make mistakes.
God’s love for us is not dependent on our behaviour, moment by moment. God’s love for us is complete, and permanent, and not interrupted by our bad choices. God also does not love us more, for better behaviour. We can’t earn God’s love, and we don’t need to. But we can live in response to it.
Here is another quote that I love, and which also challenges me deeply:
“Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.”
That was said by Thomas Merton, the famous Catholic monk and writer, and person who made lots of mistakes, big ones and little ones in his life.
I have that quote framed and on display in my office. It reminds me that we don’t have to be perfect, but we do have to be loving. Even when we may not want to be. Amen