Living a both/and life in an either/or world
by Susan Russell
“No good deed goes unpunished” is an old axiom that comes to my mind every year when we hear the gospel story that begins our readings for Holy Week – the story of Mary’s extravagant outpouring of precious perfume as a gift to Jesus — a gift that earned her a tongue lashing from Judas in John’s account of a story told in three out of four gospels. Mark says, “They were infuriated with her.” Matthew says, “They murmured against her.” No matter who told the story, this part was consistent: Mary’s, best offering was judged and rejected by those surrounding Jesus who thought she should have made a different choice.
And then Jesus intervened.
“Let her alone. Why do you criticize her?” he asked. And then — challenging them to look beyond their “either/or” mind-sets and embrace what we like to call “both/and” thinking — he reminds them that feeding the poor is a crucial cornerstone of how God would have us live in the world — but so is taking care of each other. And that in doing what she did – offering what she offered – she gave not only a gift to Jesus but an example to us of risking to give abundantly, to love extravagantly.
And so we begin Holy Week as we do every year: with Jesus offering an antidote to the “either/or” challenges that have always been part of the human condition — and have never been more present than they are today in our deeply polarized country where blaming, shaming and attacking those with real or perceived differences have become national pastimes.
I’m remembering the experience of a friend and parishioner who was asked to take part in a day of dialogue that brought together folks from different congregations and contexts for “conversation across the divide.”
The “icebreaker” was simple enough: each participant was asked to introduce themselves and then to offer a word or phrase summing up core Christian values.
“Peace” said my friend.
“Not at any price,” immediately retorted a woman across the table from her. “What about security?”
And with that exchange she threw down the “either/or” gauntlet … letting it be known that it was going to be a very long day talking across a deep divide.
The idea that we have to choose between peace and security creates a false dichotomy sending us directly into “either/or” land – which is an all too popular destination. It is a place where — like the disciples either murmuring at or infuriated at Mary’s choice — we attack rather than seek to understand those of us who have a different perspective. Bridging that divide is tough, hard, long term work – but it is work we’re called to do. And, I’m happy to report, its work my friend hung in there and gave it her best shot for the rest of the weekend.
Were any minds changed? I suspect not – but – like the woman who anointed Jesus — she did what she could. And on this Monday in Holy Week she is an example to us of how to go and do likewise.
It has been our custom over the last few years to offer daily Lenten Meditations reflecting on the Lenten themes of prayer, study, self-examination and repentance. This year, we offered those reflections through the lens of a discipline of sacred resistance.
To be clear: Sacred resistance is not something created by a think tank on November 9, 2016. It is as foundational to Christian faith as our baptismal promise to “persevere in resisting evil” and as traditional as this verse from the great Harry Fosdick hymn “God of Grace and God of Glory:”
Save us from weak resignation
to the evils we deplore;
let the gift of your salvation
be our glory evermore.
Grant us wisdom, grant us courage,
serving you whom we adore.
During Lent we explored the evils we are called to resist — and how we equip ourselves to resist them. We shared the spiritual disciplines that fueled us to continue in the struggle and resources to turn to for renewal when we run out of gas. And from those reflections came the stories of the both/as ways we live out that call to sacred resistance — individually and collectively — as members of the All Saints Community. Action and reflection. Contemplation and confrontation.
One reflection was written by vestry member Christine Hartman who shared,
“My sacred resistance is not to let worry steal my joy. Nor will I let it diminish my capacity for hope in others or myself.”
Yes, there is a lot to worry about. In our deeply polarized there is much work for us to do as we strive to offer a counter narrative of love, justice and compassion and dismantle the culture of blame, shame and attack that has become a national pastime. But as a people of sacred resistance — refusing to let worry either steal our joy or diminish our capacity for hope — we are empowered in both our prayers and our actions to live as both/and people in an either/or world.
And so it is fitting that we begin Holy Week
as we do every year
with a prayer full of both/ands:
of joy and pain
of glory and crucifixion
of the way of the cross and the way of life and peace.
For the way of the cross is by its very nature a both/and –
a way we walk throughout our spiritual journey
and a way we walk in a most intentional way this Holy Week.
May we be given the grace in these holy days ahead to walk with the sure and certain knowledge that the One who walked this way ahead of us walks along with us as well. And may we be given the grace to treat each other gently along the way – letting the good deeds of others go unpunished as we work to proclaim together the Good News we have been given to share. Amen.