A popular sign in our neighborhood.
I just returned from a gathering whose theme, Rolling the Stone Away, was presumably taken from the story of the resurrection of Lazarus. I say presumably because there was little reference to it, save one of the plenary panels I served, “Stories from the Heart,” in which we were asked to read John 11 beforehand and respond to the question, what stone did you personally have to roll away to be and become yourself?
Having served as founding director of a ministry called Lazarus Project in the 70s and 80s, I have read the story literally hundreds of times, and preached on it every anniversary for its first ten years. But I found the way the question was posed intriguing; after all, in the story, it’s the neighbors who are asked by Jesus to roll the stone from Lazarus’s tomb and unbind his death cloths. The question posed seemed to focus on my personal responsibility.
My response was that “I had to get over myself” to be and become myself—by which I meant my shy ways, being an introvert (I know, you who read this blog or my books may be surprised!).
Thus I prefer writing and editing to “performing” like my fellow activists in the church and culture. Now, don’t get me wrong, I admire performers—those who clearly enjoy performing, say, like Justin Timberlake. I even envy them! And I too can perform when required.
In my brief storytelling, I also associated my reticence with the “best little boy in the world” syndrome, common among minorities. It was only when I exchanged the goal of perfection for the goal of integrity that I was able to risk embarrassing myself and getting laughed off stage as I had been in my Christian junior high when required to give my “testimony” before the entire student body. Even now, after such risk-taking serving on two panels for last week’s gathering, I felt a keen sense of embarrassment the day after, as if I had stripped naked before them.
But all this serves as preface to the point of this post. Before answering the question, I explained that I loved the Lazarus resurrection story because it was not just about Jesus, it was about a whole community coming to Lazarus’s aid. I mentioned in passing that it was my community in high school that rolled the stone of conservative politics away from my own closet/tomb, and in college rolled away the stones of fundamentalism and biblical literalism.
I want to expand on this to encourage you to consider your own neighbors and the stones they helped you roll away to be and become who you are today.
Because my mother taught first grade there most of her professional life, we were able to afford my attendance at a fundamentalist Christian elementary and junior high. These “neighbors” helped me better understand my faith and values as a Christian.
But thank God (literally) I did not stay there in that silo of experience! I went to public high school, encountering actual neighbors of different churches and other faiths or no faith background at all. Among my closest friends were Jews whose parents survived or escaped the Holocaust. My brother’s best friend’s family, who lived on our street, had been placed in one of California’s internment centers for Japanese Americans during WW II.
Though I had a couple of African American friends in my high school, the de facto segregation of Los Angeles meant that most black high school students I encountered I met through special exchange programs with inner city schools. And of course, Hispanic and Asian neighbors were so pervasive in my California experience that I missed them when I moved to Atlanta, only to find them largely in areas I did not live.
And my teachers in high school were far more diverse and liberal in their political viewpoint than the ones in the Christian school I attended.
For all these reasons, I am not a fan of home schooling!
College brought theological and biblical challenges as one of my majors was in religious studies, enlarging my neighborhood to include those who read the Bible critically and appreciated religious diversity. I participated in demonstrations and organizations that broadened my political horizons, including a Presbyterian congregation that was actively working to dismantle racism as well as establish a community center in the neighboring barrio. At the gathering last week, I was pleased that the organizers brought in speakers from groups addressing St. Louis’s recent racial tensions, and took an offering for their causes.
I have written many times of the inspirational influence of the Civil Rights Movement in my own quest for civil and ecclesiastical rights. And both college and seminary brought feminist neighbors as well as LGBT neighbors.
During every period of my life, such neighbors have rolled away stones that prevented my full enjoyment of diversity. If only those who fear immigrants and Muslims and ethnic diversity could understand the full glory of God’s creation!
Wade’s and my favorite character on the Showtime series Billions is a non-binary person who goes by “them, they, and their,” but last week’s gathering was my first “immersion” with a half-dozen or more non-binary neighbors who do not identify either as female or male, and I liked it. I liked learning how much my reactions and responses to an individual are based on gender. And I liked them. These are my newest neighbors, rolling away one more stone to a fuller life and broader appreciation of our neighborhood.
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