Jan 16th: The Strength to Love, with Rev. Dr. Steven Koski
A Part of the Series:
Jan 16th: The Strength to Love, with Rev. Dr. Steven Koski
On this weekend when we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. You know, one of my favorite stories of Dr. King comes from his very last speech, the speech best known for his statement, I have been to the mountaintop. During that same speech, Dr.
King told the story of being in New York City greeting people when a woman approached him without warning and stabbed him in the chest inflicting a near fatal wound because the tip of the blade came to rest against the edge of his aorta. The New York Times reported that he would have died if he merely sneezed. Dr. King said he received thousands of letters and cards wishing him well, including one from the President. There was one letter that made the biggest impact from a 9th grade student at White Plains High School in New York.
This young girl’s letter simply said, Dear Dr. King, I’m a 9th grader at White Plains High School. While it shouldn’t really matter, I would like to mention that I’m a white girl. I read in the paper of your attack and of your suffering. I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died.
And I’m simply writing to you to say that I’m so very happy that you didn’t sneeze because you bring out the best in me. I love that this is a moment that demands the very best of us, calling for our deepest love and our bravest action. Dr. King said the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice, where all of God’s beloved children have an opportunity to flourish. This is a moment that demands the best of us, calls for each of us to put our shoulders behind that moral arc and push as hard as we can, bending that arc in the direction of love.
The problem is that for many of us, we’re just so tired and overwhelmed doing our best to simply get through the day. We’re not even sure where to even find the best of us, Dr. King said.
The strength to love, you know, the strength to put your shoulder behind that arc. The strength to love comes from the inner transformation that happens when you know at the deepest level that you are loved. We are powerless to love if love does not first live in us.
Brain research has shown how you imagine God literally changes the wiring and neural circuitry of your brain impacts the way you live the world. Research has shown that if you spend time each day contemplating a generous God of unconditional love, a God who delights in you, it actually activates and strengthens the part of your brain where empathy resides. I mean, consider that for a moment, taking the time to imagine a God of boundless goodness and that you are made in the image of that goodness. As scripture reminds us in Genesis, One actually activates your brain in a way that makes you more loving. It’s almost as if God designed it that way.
Research has also shown contemplating an angry judgmental disapproving God Awakens the limbic system where fear and aggression reside in your brain.
The God we imagine shapes us into the people who reflect the image of that God back into the world.
The strength to love, the strength to bring out the very best in us, comes from being reminded at the deepest level that we ourselves are loved. I used to work as a counselor in an adolescent treatment facility. There was a young man, about 16 years old I’d spend time with every week I’d ask, what’s going on with you today? He’d open his mouth and words of pain and struggle would just pour out intermingled with his tears, soaking his shirt, leaving puddles of grief and heartbreak on the carpet. He’d tell me stories about his mother, who died shortly after he was born.
He had described his powerful clashes with his father, a man who loved him for sure, but a man so captured by his own pain that he couldn’t speak words of love to him or for him, choosing instead to use only words of judgment and punishment for his wayward son. Now, week after week, this young man showed up in my office. He sat in the same chair and shared his pain most of the time, doing his best to act tough, like it didn’t matter. But there were times where he would be completely undone by the feeling of being unlovable and unworthy. I just need to know that it mattered to him, he would tell me, I never seem to be able to do it right.
Occasionally we would talk about God, and he would tell me, I don’t believe in God. I try to gently push back, what if it’s not about what you believe but that God believes in you? I would gently ask, what if it is about how much God loves you that matters, not how much you love God. Yeah, right. I can’t even get my own father to love me.
I’m a lost cause, he’d reply, and his eyes told me that he believed he was unlovable with every fiber of his being. A loud and resounding no echoed deep within this young man’s soul that he thought came from God.
You know, I left that job at that treatment facility to go to seminary. The day I said goodbye to this young man, I happened to be holding a glass of water in my hand. I didn’t plan to do this. I hadn’t even started seminar yet. I didn’t even know what to do.
And yes, even back then, I was breaking the rules. I’m just going to trust this moment was SpiritLed. I asked him if I could baptize it. I think I caught him by surprise because he said, I guess so.
I placed my fingers into the glass of water and I touched his forehead and said, John, you are a child of God, and God loves you more than you could even imagine.
You’re not defined by what has happened to you or what you have done or not done. You’re not defined by your failures or mistakes. John, you are not in any way less than or not good enough.
I looked at me in the eyes and I said, John, you are a child of God. You are made in the image of God’s goodness, and you are good. God delights in you. There is nothing you can do or not do that will ever change that truth about who you are. And there is no one that can take this truth away from you.
And I wish I could give you a happy ending to John’s story. To be honest, I have no idea what happened to John after that day.
Did he find the strength he needed to overcome his woundedness and bring his very best self to the world?
I sure hope so.
I do know that when you come to understand the goodness of God and that you are made in the image of that goodness, you can’t help but bring that goodness into the world. You can’t help but see that goodness in others to fight for justice. When you see that goodness denied or diminished in others. As Dr. King said, the strength to love comes from knowing at the deepest level that you are loved.
You know, you could argue the Ministry of Jesus begins when he was baptized. He was about 30 years old. We know virtually nothing about Jesus from when he was a baby until he was 30. The story of his Ministry begins on the day he walks out of Nazareth away from his father’s carpentry shop, walks into the countryside, and walks into the River Jordan to be baptized by his cousin John. It was a defining moment for Jesus, a turning point.
His life and heart turned wholly to God in God’s people from that moment on. The Gospel writer Luke describes this moment this way. When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. When Jesus was praying, the heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him as a Dove and a voice came from heaven. You are my child, my beloved.
With you I am well pleased. Now, Jesus was about 30 years old when he began his Ministry.
The Ministry of Jesus, his strength to love began on the day he was baptized, the day he understood, really understood who he was. As God’s beloved, in my imagination, I could see Jesus breaking bread, sharing some wine with his disciples. And one of the disciples asked, So, Jesus, where did this journey start for you? I mean, how do you get up every morning, face these crowds where there’s so much need? How do you deal with the religious leaders always plodding against you?
How do you stay so calm and on purpose when we don’t know, when the next meal will come or where we will sleep tonight. Jesus, where do you find your strength to love, knowing it may cost you your life?
I can imagine Jesus taking a sip of wine, leaning back and saying something like this. I had a sense, the sense of something deep, calling me to something greater than myself. So I find myself walking into that river, asking John to baptize me. And he did. Pushed me under, pulled me back up.
And as I stood there, knee deep in the river, a little embarrassed, feeling foolish, soaking wet, water running down my face, tears suddenly came. And it was as if the sky opened and my entire being was filled with God’s presence. And I heard this voice, this voice addressing me. I don’t know if it was coming from outside or somewhere deep within you and my child, my beloved, marked by my love with you. I am well pleased.
That’s where it all began for Jesus, the day he found his strength to love. You know, throughout the Gospels, it frequently says, Jesus went off by himself, away from the crowd to pray. I can imagine Jesus removing himself from the noise and distractions, removing himself from the stress and the conflicts, from the overwhelming demands and the needs that surrounded him, so that he could sit in silence, listen again for that voice reminding him who he is.
That’s where you find your strength. Remembering, returning, reconnecting to the truth of who you are and whose you are.
Because when you remember that God is for you, you find the strength necessary to live your life for others.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu died the day after Christmas, a man of small stature who lived a life of immense love. Early in his career, Desmond Tutu was a priest in a small Parish in Soweto during apartheid. Most of his prisoners were domestic workers, treated as if their lives had no value or worth. The white employer would actually refuse to use a person’s name, saying their African name was too difficult to pronounce. So most African women would simply be called Annie.
And almost all black men, regardless of their age, were called boy, as if they had no identity or worth that was worth recognizing. Archbishop Tutu would say to his congregation, when they ask you, when they ask you, who are you, here’s what you are to say. You say, I am God’s beloved. I am created in the image of God’s goodness. I’m a God carrier.
I carry God’s goodness with me everywhere I go. I’m God’s partner in the world. And Desmond Tutu said, men and women whose backs and spirits were beaten and broken every day by the evils of apartheid would walk out of that Church taller heads held high with renewed strength to put their shoulders behind that moral arc and push a little harder in the direction of love.
As we begin a new year. There are so many challenges in front of us can feel overwhelming yes this is a time that demands the best of us?
Where will we find the strength to love for today? Maybe it’s simply listening for that voice deep inside reminding you of who you are? And whose you are?
You are a child of God beloved take a deep breath rest in the goodness of God be reminded you are created in the image of that goodness for today let that be enough because when the truth of who you are seeps into your bones you can’t help but carry that goodness into the world may it be so.