Room to grow

February 19th, 2019

As fall term gave way to Christmas break in my senior year at high school, I had not applied to a single college. So, Bernadette Mathews—one of my religion teachers—grabbed me by the sleeve and took me to her alma mater for a personal tour. 

She had graduated from Emory in Atlanta. But Bernadette’s college days had begun at Oxford College, Emory’s two-year campus located at the university’s original site forty or so miles outside of Atlanta. 

At the time, she didn’t tell me that the bar for admission to Oxford was lower than it was for Emory. But, she had told me that as a student herself, she had been one of the favorite students of the philosophy professor who had become Dean. 

Some time later I realized that the private appointment she had with the Dean during our tour was more than a trip down memory lane. She was making a personal case for my admission.

Honestly, it had never occurred to me that my chances of getting in were slim. No one in my family had gone to college, so I was blissfully ignorant about how competitive college admissions could be.

My grades were mediocre. If a subject interested me—Religion, Philosophy, English—I was all in and my work was excellent. But my effort in classes like Geometry, Biology, and French was haphazard. And I earned the grades to show for it.

In contrast to my middle-of-the-class grade point average, my aspirations were sky high: a PhD in Psychology. I imagine that an objective observer would have found my academic goals and my career aspirations unrealistic, even laughable. 

But my mentor at Oxford College—my philosophy professor Kent Linville—told me something in office hours that made an enduring impression. He said, “Oxford is a place for late bloomers. We give them space to grow.”

Ever since, I’ve understood myself as a late bloomer — not only in my studies and in my career, but in the ways of the Kingdom of God. In the way of love. 

Luke records one of Jesus’s crash courses in the way of love. Commentators call it the Sermon on the Plain. The opening remarks are so stunning, so demanding, that I can bear to listen only by assuming that Jesus understands that we are all late bloomers and that he’s giving us space to grow.

Jesus begins his sermon with parallel blessings and woes:
  • The poor will inherit the Kingdom, but the rich have gotten all that they’re going to get.
  • The hungry will be fed, but the well-fed will go hungry.
  • Those who are weeping will laugh, but those who laugh now will mourn and weep later.

Depending upon how you understand God, this can be hard to get your head around. God seems to be playing favorites, and many of us—myself included—aren’t on the home team.

Order here:

If you’re poor, hungry, and grieving, God intends to reward you. Those of us who are rich—and let’s face it, by world standards Americans are rolling in the dough—get the eternal short straw. The well-fed will stand in the bread line. We had better enjoy this party while it lasts; the best we can hope for on the other side of the grave is endless study hall.

Reading Jesus’s words this way turns on a transactional notion of God. In other words, God pays us back—rewards or punishes us—in reaction to how we have lived. Everybody gets what they deserve according to God’s very specific preferences.

But God is about love, the kind of love that theologians call grace. God’s love is always unmerited gift. Never reward. And that love moves unfailingly in the direction of making us who we most truly are, giving us room to grow into our deepest, most enduring aspiration: to be the image of God.

The first chapter of Genesis tells us that God created us in God’s own image. 

That does not mean that God stamped us out of the primordial Playdough using a God-shaped mold. Instead, God brought us into being with a holy aspiration: to love what God loves as God loves it. We yearn to grow into that way of being.

That’s what Jesus meant when he gave us the second half of what we call the summary of the law. 

The first half of the summary is to love God like God is the very air we breathe. Without God we would suffocate. And then Jesus adds, love your neighbor as yourself. 

Loving our neighbor as ourselves is not a second and separate command. Instead, this second half of the summary unpacks the core meaning of the first half. To love God at a cellular level is to love our neighbor as if we shared internal organs.

As Dorothy Day famously put it, “I really only love God as much as the person I love the least.”

Whatever I receive—whether by toil or windfall—I have been given in order to make the world a better place for all of us, not merely to make a better place for myself in this world. 

Anyone else’s poverty, hunger, or sorrow diminishes my own soul. Love moves me to rearrange the patterns of this world that deprive my neighbor of the dignity deserved by every beloved child of God.

In the end, to love means to inhabit our lives in first person plural: We. I will find my true self—I come to be the “I” that is most uniquely me—in the tapestry of “We.”

That is the way of love. I have to confess, I’m a late bloomer. But the Kingdom of God is a place that gives us room to grow.

"Room to Grow" originally appeared at Looking for God in Messy Places. Reprinted with permission.

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