In 2009 when I was living in Seattle, I had the once-in-a-lifetime privilege to see Dr. Maya Angelou. A teacher colleague had a ticket to see her in a small church venue, but he was unable to attend. He graciously offered the ticket to me. I could not tell you a single word that she said. But I can describe for you in intimate awareness what she looked like, what her voice sounded like, how her beloved son held out his arm while she grasped it to keep her steady as he escorted her out to the small stage and helped her sit in the oversized wingback chair with the tall, living room style lamp at her left hand. As her eyes were incredibly sensitized to light, the lights in the room were dimmed, and she wore darkened glasses. She looked so small and frail. But, when she spoke…oh! Her unmistakeable, resonating deep-toned voice, quick to laugh, with a comforting and an effortless cadence filled the room. I watched the faces of those around me, enraptured by her brilliance and vulnerability and resilience and wisdom. If I could imagine what God sounds like, it would be Maya Angelou’s voice.
As we hear the story, one that we have heard many times, of the three who followed Jesus and their responses to the empty tomb, I am challenged as I observe each of their reactions. As Ignatius of Loyola teaches, we are to sit with what we read and allow our holy-inspired thoughts to draw us into the story. The beloved disciple, I can imagine, wants to know what the fuss is about. He sees the empty tomb, but what does he do? He returns home. Peter, well, we cannot be sure why he is running to the tomb. After all, he spent the last few hours before Jesus’ crucifixion cutting off the ear of a soldier and denying that he knew Jesus to all who asked him. And what does he do? He, too, returns home. And the Magdalene, burdened with anguished grief, did not recognize her beloved Rabbouni until she heard his voice. But, there is something different with Mary Magdalene. Jesus makes Himself known to her and not to the men. She touches the Master, and the men do not. She believes. She is transformed. And, in her belief, what does she do? She goes back to the disciples and speaks of what she has seen.
Sue Monk Kidd quotes in The Dance of the Dissident Daughter a Tibetan spiritual teacher, “We often assume that simply because we understand something intellectually … we have actually realized it. This is a great delusion.” Mary, unlike the Beloved Disciple and Peter, allowed the truth of what she saw to change her behavior. To alter her mental and emotional responses. To transform her brokenness. When they returned to what was safe and comfortable, she turned away from going back home, she rejected individualism, and she rejoined her community.
Maya Angelou, and I have shared several times before, said, “When you know better, do better.” I think of her wisdom that only comes from a lifetime of heartache and abuse and racism and misogyny and mistakes and awareness as she offered hope to those who would dare to look within, to see self as we truly are.
On the morning of April 4, 2022, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Patrick Lyoya, a 26-year-old refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was fatally shot at point blank range in the back of the head as a police officer sat on his back pinning him to the ground. On May 25, 2020, George Floyd choked, “I can’t breathe,” and died on sight as a police officer sat on his neck pinning him to the ground. On March 13, 2020, Breonna Taylor was shot and killed in her home in the middle of the night by police officers who thought she had drugs in her home. In the wee hours of January 1, 2020, in McAlester, OK, Dustin Parker, a taxi driver and trans man, was shot and killed in his car as he awaited the next customer needing a ride home from the New Year’s Eve celebrations. The killer is in our town and is still unknown.
I bring these stories to light because, as Maya Angelou told us, “When you know better, do better.” We have a history within our humanity of killing the innocent. Of ridding ourselves of what makes us uncomfortable. Of eliminating what we don’t want to see. And in this moment, I have to ask: At what point are we going to continue to refuse to see others as human beings? At what point will we see ourselves in Pilate, in the mob shouting Crucify Him, in the cop who killed Patrick Lyoya, in the jurors who acquitted the police officer who killed Breonna Taylor? And I have to ask, why are we choosing to invest into our apathy and impotency rather than our creativity and divinity? If we are willing to walk that shadow road of truly knowing and naming ourselves as racist or misogynist or homophobic or transphobic or privileged, only then we can begin the healing journey of the self. Only then will we be able to step away from individualism and into what Jesus demanded of us: love your neighbor.
Jesus, answering the question of the lawyer, “Who is my neighbor?” told the parable of the Good Samaritan. The point of the parable is that everyone, EVERYONE, is our neighbor. But in order to love them, we must see the Holy in them. Imago Dei, the likeness of God, the image of God.
“When you know better, do better.” Will you choose to be as the Beloved Disciple and Peter, hearing and seeing what makes you uncomfortable and then returning to the safety of your home? Or will you be Mary Magdalene who sees and realizes and knows, and then she chooses immediate, rather than delayed, action. Choose the shadow path of understanding self. Discover your precious Rabbouni and celebrate the new life that is offered. And look with fresh eyes on your “other” who, just like you, is made in the glorious image of the Holy.