I can still feel the sun beating down on my face and hear the cacophony of voices like it was yesterday. The playground at my elementary school in the small town of Pacolet, South Carolina was where I first learned to choose sides. In this instance, it was in the context of games or sports at recess – flag football, basketball, tag, and more. Even as I think about it, my stomach starts to twist. “Will I be picked last? What if I’m first, does that mean they think I’m really good at this?” Spoiler alert: I was hardly ever picked first or last.
We learn how to take sides early in life. It seems that all I have been reading lately is about taking sides: Israel or Palestine, to mask or not to mask, Donald Trump or Liz Cheney. My social media feeds are full of passionate and sometimes mean-spirited posts about being on the correct side.
On the one hand, I want to say that this is part of human nature. We want to be on a side, to make things easy and fit into a normal system. To be somewhere in the middle, often known as a grey area, is not often comfortable.
My colleague in religious life at Emory University, Rabbi Jordan Braunig, did some free-writing a few days ago in the wake of all that’s happening in Israel and Gaza. What he ended up with from this contemplative practice (my words, not his) has been shared at least 30 times on Facebook. He starts with,
It is possible to pray for peace.
Our prayer life need not know
our boundaries. No green lines,
no dashes, no subtle
I am sharing this with you with his permission even though we have yet to sit down with one another to learn where we stand on this issue. I do not know what side he is on. That conversation will be important to have in person, but it is not always readily accessible, especially in COVID times. Instead, we get to see whatever one or the other posts on social media while we attend to the everyday needs around us with our families, friends, work, communities and more.
We have the capacity to pray
for the old couple crouched
in their stairwell in Ashkelon
and the terrified child in his
pajamas in Gaza.
On the other hand, maybe there is a way to nurture our human nature. Is choosing a side the only option? In some instances, I will admit that it is the way forward. Rabbi Jordan, though, says that “We have the capacity to pray.” In his poem/prayer, he seems to be pointing us to pray for peace. Or at least urging us to “spread our prayer like a tattered shawl…over the tired shoulders of these and across the narrow frames of those.”
I am not naïve to think that prayer is all there is to this. But, as Rabbi Jordan also says, “We are not naïve, not cowards, nor traitors to pray for peace.” When we pray, we extend the possibilities of our moral imaginations, and the hope is that we see what we did not once see and hear what we did not once hear. That could be for the situation at hand or perhaps about the person (or their Facebook post) directly in front of us.
We are about to celebrate Pentecost in the Christian tradition, 50 days beyond Easter when the Holy Spirit rushed over those early followers and birthed the church. In many of the churches where I have worshipped on Pentecost in the last decade, they have decorated the sanctuary with red balloons, streamers, and banners. Red is the liturgical color that represents the Holy Spirit. The other festive decorations are meant to celebrate the birth of the church while also representing the tongues of fire that rested on the followers that first Pentecost.
I like to use the image of “the wave” when talking about Pentecost. You know, when you are at a baseball game and someone encourages their section of the stadium to stand up and throw their hands in the air and move their body like an ocean wave. If it catches on, the sight and experience can be overwhelming. From this one small section, one person or small group’s vision, emerges an entire stadium moving a collective wave across 60,000 people.
To get something like that going takes vision, coordination, the ability to see and listen, and results in action. We have the capacity for all these things, and when we tap into our capacity, learn to pray, and use our gifts, we extend the possibilities of our moral imaginations and create new hope.
Rev. Dr. Lyn Pace is a United Methodist minister and college chaplain who lives in Oxford with his spouse and 8-year-old.