By Bishop L. Jonathan Holston
"The good news of Jesus Christ—the Message!—begins here, following to the letter the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. ‘Watch closely: I’m sending my preacher ahead of you; He’ll make the road smooth for you. Thunder in the desert! Prepare for God’s arrival! Make the road smooth and straight!’ John the Baptizer appeared in the wild, preaching a baptism of life-change that leads to forgiveness of sins. People thronged to him from Judea and Jerusalem and, as they confessed their sins, were baptized by him in the Jordan River into a changed life. John wore a camel-hair habit, tied at the waist with a leather belt. He ate locusts and wild field honey. As he preached he said, ‘The real action comes next: The star in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand, will change your life. I’m baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. His baptism—a holy baptism by the Holy Spirit—will change you from the inside out.’"—Mark 1:1-8 (MSG)
It has been said that, “When spoken together at just the right moment, there are two words that have amazing, life-changing power.” These two words possess the capacity to breathe into us new life, to lift burdens, and to calm fears—as well as to inspire hope. The two words to which I refer are simply these: “I understand.”
After the basic needs of food, shelter and clothing are met, one of humankind’s greatest needs is really the need to be understood. What happens when we are in a serious disagreement with family, friends, coworkers, neighbors or the like?
We probably find ourselves rehearsing speeches in our heads while we are working, driving, pumping gas, studying or lying in bed late at night. We play out different scenarios in our minds and think of clever things we plan to say the next time the issue is discussed.
I believe that one of the reasons we do this is because we want people to understand our point of view. It’s difficult to accept that people with whom we share a conflict do not understand our position. In fact, we are determined to enlighten them—if it’s the last thing we do!
We have the tendency to rant and rave about all the things our critics don’t understand? They don’t understand the pressure we are under, the decisions we have to make, or the journey our lives have taken. Our critics don’t understand when we are lonely, depressed, or possibly grieving. And when someone tells us to just “snap out of it,” our instincts tell us to mark that person or persons as insensitive and having no understanding of what we are experiencing.
Maybe it’s in the midst of a global pandemic, racial unrest and political divisiveness—something none of us have ever experienced before, that has wreaked havoc on our lives, causing us to adapt to new ways of living. I believe that some of the most frustrating times in life come when we desperately need understanding and can’t find it.
Marie Curie, the Nobel Prize recipient in the field of science, said it this way: “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we fear less.”
That is why these two words—“I understand”—are so powerful. When we find ourselves in the tough situations of life—and we will—these two words provide a lifeline, a sigh of relief, and a gracious hope.
Likewise, when it comes to our spiritual journey, we often want the perks without the process. We want the comfort without the challenge. We want relationship without investment. We want redemption without the cross of Calvary, and we want spiritual replenishment without the journey through repentance.
If we want to truly be people who can proclaim to our sisters and brothers, “I understand,” then we must put in the work of learning and growing ourselves—changing from the inside out.
John the Baptist tried to prepare the hearts of the people, delivering to us a message of repentance. Repentance is hard and painful work. No one ever feels that they have wronged anyone or done anything that needs an apology, which makes it easier to stay in the midst of our denial. We all need forgiveness and freedom for joyful obedience. To truly turn from who we were into who we will be requires commitment and intentionality.
In this spirit, I want to share with you two opportunities to learn and to grow. On Saturday, Oct. 30, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, of the Episcopal Church, will be the keynote speaker at the Fall Dialogue for the Fellowship of South Carolina Bishops. At this ecumenical event, Bishop Curry will speak through the prism of his faith, ancestry, and personal journey about putting faith in action and practicing the belief that love is the way. You can register on the conference webpage to attend this event.
I also invite you to engage in small group discussion using the resource, “Our Response to Racism,” found on the conference webpage at www.umcsc.org/endracism. With this resource as your guide, the walls that divide will fall, and bridges of reconciliation will be built between all of God’s people. The walls crumble when we begin to see and hear beyond our own experience—when we make a concerted effort to learn and understand each other’s stories.
The time is always right for us to have honest conversation and to take the next faithful steps together. May our willingness to learn, share, listen and grow reflect the light of God’s love into a hurting world, rendering a true reflection of the Gospel, and building up the kingdom of God.
Here are two opportunities to live into our baptisms, actively seeking ways for our lives to change from the inside out as we turn toward Christ and our neighbors, boldly proclaiming, “I understand.”
By Bishop L. Jonathan Holston