Monday, September 1, 2014

"But You Don't Know Me"

Often when I read the readings for the day I can't easily make a connection between them or, if I can, it's a very tenuous one. Today, though, with each of the three lessons all I could think of (and hear in my inner ear) was a continuing line from a song sung by Ray Charles, "You Don't Know Me."* It's a song about someone who loves another but who can't quite get up the courage to tell them until it's too late and they've gone off to marry someone else, leaving the singer mourning the unrequited love. Ok, it's hard to picture Job, Peter and Jesus in a romantic triangle and suffering unrequited love, but the last line of each verse of the song really sums it all up, "But you don't know me."

Job is doing what, in Yiddish, would be called a kvetch, a complaint (Job himself could be called a kvetch). In short, it's a variation on "Why me, God?" He's not cursing God, just calling attention to the fact that he really didn't deserve all this-the itching, pain, loss of home, family and just about everything that made life worthwhile. Most of us in much less drastic situation would have the same "Why me?" question.  Job wasn't being punished for who he was or anything he'd done. He'd been a model citizen and his prosperity grew. The Adversary had approached God with the notion that taking away all the prosperity stuff would make Job turn against God. What Job endured was to prove a point. Job had friends, however, who try to get him to see the error of his thinking, to confess the reasons why he's being punished in this way. To them, Job's short response would be, "But you don't know me."

Peter was confronted about eating with non-believers by the church hierarchy in Jerusalem. Peter then told them about the vision of the sheet with all the animals, birds and reptiles that came down from heaven and the voice telling him, "“What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (Acts 9b). The voice wasn't talking just about pork chops or shrimp cocktails; it went a lot deeper than that. It was about reaching out to those whom tradition and culture said they should shun. Peter's version of "But you don't know me" was that when it looked to others that he'd simply been misbehaving while away from home, doing things like people do when on vacation that they'd never do when at home and back under scrutiny of family and neighbors. He was actually doing precisely what he was supposed to be doing. It took a bit of persuasion, but then, Peter wasn't always the brightest bulb in the chandelier.
The gospel reading comes right after the story of the woman taken in adultery as Jesus was teaching in the temple. Jesus' moment of "But you don't know me" was in response to the Pharisees who questioned his right to judge the woman and release her from the threat of stoning. Jesus' response was that if they knew him, they would know the Father who sent him, and if they knew the Father they would then know the truth of why he, Jesus, was here and why he was doing what he was doing. The Pharisees were quite knowledgeable about the law but when it came to the actuality of belief, they didn't get the point. Of course, it was their job to enforce the laws given to Moses by God, but somehow, over the millennia, something had gotten lost in the translation it seemed.

Each of us has our own "But you don't know me" experiences. Sometimes things have happened that shouldn't have and we've been judged by others on the basis of what they knew (or thought they knew) when that  was or wasn't really what happened. Reputations have been ruined, relationships have been rent asunder, families torn apart, communities embroiled in conflict, all because there was a gap in what people thought they knew and the truth. I think Ferguson, Missouri, is a case in point. We hear different stories, one from witnesses, one from the police, another from the forensic findings of a boy/man who could no longer speak for himself in any other way.

Both Michael Brown and his police shooter could say, "But you don't know me," and both would be perfectly right. The intersection of their lives was brief but bloody, and neither one really knew what the other was about. The community has been left with questions that seemingly have no immediate answers, and public opinion is polarized by defenders on both sides. It's created an atmosphere of distrust, hard feelings, even violence on both sides, and one can only pray for calm and for answers that will help to begin the healing, bring the two sides together for the common good and, hopefully, bring about an end to whatever inequalities and racial tensions that were present in the community but not completely exposed until the day of Michael Brown's murder.
The event shines a light on something we don't like to think of, even those of us who are only observers from a distance. Everyone has a "But you don't know me" side to them, and, for many, how they feel inside about things like race, orientation, gender, social or economic status, even religion or lack of it, remains under the surface. Sometimes it will fester until it is accidentally lanced and the poison will be released and sometimes it will be a partially-healed scar that is ripped open. Sometimes something will happen that causes us to realize that we had a shadow side we weren't even aware of and which we now have to examine in the sunlight. That's when the "But you don't know me" becomes a personal "Now I know me."
"Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle"** is something we might need to keep in mind especially when it comes to our own judging of others and their motives. Even those for whom life seems good, and pleasant and worthwhile, there might be a painful struggle going on of which we know nothing until later, as we found with the tragic death of Robin Williams. What appear to be small challenges might be camouflage for deep chasms of inner pain and turmoil.
The lesson today is that we will never know everything about everyone. We could become like Pharisees or the Jerusalemites or even the Job's comforters, or we could be open to a greater compassion and understanding. The choice is ours. The readings definitely give us something to go on and the news we hear offers us further opportunities. Today would be a good day to remember "But you don't know me," both in ourselves and in everyone we meet.
It's worth a try.
*Walker, Cindy (composer and lyricist) and Arnold, Eddy (title, storyline) 1955. First recorded by Arnold in 1956.  Ray Charles recorded it in 1962 and a host of other artists before and since have likewise recorded it and used it in live performances. 

** Quote attributed to Rev. John Watson, writing under the pseudonym Ian MacLaren. Found at The Quote Investigator

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, August 30, 2014.

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