Remember the beginning of the school year when you’d be asked to tell or write how you spent your summer? And everyone groaned. Why is that? Isn’t it fun and useful to recall how you have spent your time? This summer found us on the road quite a bit, away from GPPC. It’s nice to be re-engaged in a place we consider home. We had so much fun, but, ever the quiet observer, I had some thoughts along the way. As we return to Sunday school, I offer you a “what I thought about over the summer” narrative. And a way to tie together Francis Underwood, runners, turtles, and being good neighbors wherever we travel.
I confess, I did not have the energy to watch either of the national political conventions. I just did not think I was going to hear anything I hadn’t already heard. Instead, I began watching the series, “House of Cards” on Netflix. For those of you unfamiliar with the series, it is a political drama that follows the corrupt rise to power (and, eventually, the presidency) of Francis Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey) and his wife Claire (played by Robin Wright). It’s a very R-rated, dark, twisted version of the TV show, “The West Wing.”
By the time the conventions happened, I was well into Season 3. In one particular episode, things really aren’t going Underwood’s way. He is not used to that. A self-proclaimed (for political purposes) religious man, he finds himself in a church sanctuary in the middle of the night with an Episcopalian bishop. He is trying to understand justice. Underwood says he understands the Old Testament God “whose power was absolute, who ruled through fear. But Him (Underwood disdainfully points to a statue of Jesus)…” The bishop replies, “There’s no such thing as absolute power for us, except on the receiving end. Using fear will get you nowhere. It’s not your job to determine what’s just. It’s not your place to choose which version of God you like best. It’s not your duty to serve this country alone, and it better not be your goal to simply serve yourself. You serve the Lord, and through him, you serve others. Two rules. Love God and love each other. You weren’t chosen, Mr. President. Only He was.”
Underwood asks to be alone to “pray.” He approaches Jesus and snarls through clenched teeth, “Love. That’s what you’re selling?! Well, I don’t buy it!”
It was a jarring scene, but it has had me thinking, ever since, about why those simple, but clear commandments are so difficult. Love God and love each other—right there in Matthew 22. But why does it appear so many people, like Underwood, don’t “buy it?” It seems as though this summer there was a daily headline or picture that showed how miserably we are failing at loving one another.
Most of you know that I wrestle with questions such as these while I run. It also probably isn’t any surprise to you that I spent my summer training for another fall marathon. I join 1,000+ other runners on Saturday mornings for our long run of the week. I’ve meet some of the most inspiring people on the marathon training team (MTT) over the years—people I now call friends. The stories they share as we are pounding pavement are truly inspiring. And most of us are wrestling with the same questions. We have solved more of the world’s problems running side-by-side on a 20- mile run than we ever would have in a boardroom. We come from diverse backgrounds, but out there on the road, we are the same. And maybe a little more willing to listen because we need a distraction from all of those miles. I’ve often joked that world peace could be achieved if the whole world went out on a run together. Meb Keflezighi is a marathoner I greatly admire. He was a refugee from Eritrea who was welcomed into this country in 1987. He has since become a U.S. citizen. He won the Boston Marathon in 2014. He is a deeply religious man. He loves God and loves people. His first name means “Let there be Light” in Eritrean. You should read about him. I was thrilled when he made the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team (he won the silver medal in Athens in 2004). As marathon day approached, the commentators started reviewing the course route. There was a section of the course the runners would do twice. I thought, “As big as Rio is, they couldn’t create a more interesting route?!” It’s hard mentally, to cover the same section more than once, at least it is for me. But, as I was watching, it occurred to me that the route kept the runners “safe” in the touristy area of Rio—they weren’t exposed to (nor were the viewers) the extreme poverty around Rio, or to the people who were exploited and/or displaced to make the Olympic venues complete. Might we have done a better job of highlighting that? I wondered if Meb was thinking about that. Probably not. He got pretty dehydrated, so he was probably just trying to finish. But I don’t think it is a stretch to think he has wrestled with these same questions while on a training run.
A vacation to Holden Beach took me away from my running team for a couple of weeks. Like many Eastern seaboard communities, Holden Beach is a turtle sanctuary. Over the years, we’ve seen the nests marked off and protected in Holden, but we’ve never seen turtle hatchlings. One evening we walked down to a nest that was being closed out. Most of the turtles had hatched and made their way to the ocean. Volunteers were digging up the remaining hatchlings. That night, there were seven. They were so small, and so sweet. 30 or 40 people had gathered to watch. Two hatchings just refused to make their way to the ocean - they kept turning around and heading back to the next - back toward the light instead of toward the dark ocean. Isn’t that really what all of God’s creatures seek? Safety in the light instead of fear in the stormy ocean? Even if facing the turbulent waters brings us closer to the lives we were meant to live? It had me thinking about all of those people on the beach—people of different backgrounds and ideologies– there loving those seven tiny creatures. What if we loved a family from Aleppo the way we loved those turtles? What if we loved people in the poor neighborhoods of Rio? What might that look like?
As summer drew to a close, I took the boys on one last adventure. We went to NYC. I’ll spare you all of the details of that trip—suffice it to say we covered more than a marathon’s distance around Manhattan in three days. The number of homeless people we saw everywhere was not lost on my boys. Instead of ignoring it, we talked about it. We talked about possible reasons why people might be homeless and whether they had people who loved them. One of my children was particularly bothered that we had ordered too much food one night. He asked if we might we give it to someone who was homeless since we hadn’t even touched it. Love God, love each other. I believe my children might be starting to “buy it.”
So, that’s what I spent my summer thinking about. I’ve left you with many questions and not many answers. The problems are complex, and the solutions, even more complex. But, I’m reminded we don’t have to have all of the answers to move forward—we can start here: let’s buy into loving God and loving each other. We can start here in our sanctuary, and we can carry that with us when we go out into the world.
Across the years, Kimberly Carswell’s contributions to Telling Our Stories have always been thoughtful. She is a marathoner who keeps her own blog on running and life. She and Scott are approaching their 20th anniversary – they have three boys spread across high school and middle school. All five Carswells are active at GPPC.