I had been in seminary only a little while when my then-partner asked me a stumper of a question.
“Don’t you think that’s a contradiction?” she asked me one day.
“What?” I asked perplexed.
“The bumper stickers on your car,” she clarified. “You have one that says ‘Candler School of Theology’ and another that says, ‘People Suck.’ Don’t you think that’s a contradiction?”
I told her no, I didn’t think it was, but was at a loss as to explain why until I told my dean about my partner’s observation. He laughed and replied, “Well, seminary is where you learn that people suck.”
And indeed, it’s true. In fact, one of my seminary friends and I developed three rules of life while sitting in Old Testament class because after each story recounted by the writers, we would look at each other and say, “Wow, people suck!”
That was rule number one: “People suck.”
Rule number two was: “It’s all about me.”
Rule number three was: “It’s all good.”
This way we could speak in code. After a horrible Bible story we could simply say, “Rule number one!” When we’d go out drinking to discuss how our own lives might be sucking we’d say, “Rule number two.” After a few beers, we eventually got around to “Rule number three.”
And, being a good Southern Baptist (except for that part before about beer), I’ll make those three rules our three points for this sermon.
Before we get too much further though, it might be useful to define our terms. To “suck” in this context is to be mean-spirited, arrogant, uncaring, and blind to the suffering and anguish of others. To “suck” in this context is to disregard the needs of others, putting ourselves first, and anyone else decidedly last. To “suck” in this context means to entertain thoughts of jealousy, competition, hatred, pride, greed or anger. It is in this sense that we mean the word “suck.”
And in the Bible, boy, do people ever suck.
In 2 Samuel 11, for example, we find David lusting after Bathsheba, another man’s wife. He takes her to bed and she becomes pregnant. Not wanting anyone to find out, David brings her husband Uriah home from war. He tells the loyal soldier, “you’ve been out in the field for awhile now, Uriah, why not go home, see your wife and y’know, wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say no more!”
Uriah, though, is a good soldier. He goes home, but he spends the night outside his door. This won’t do for David. He has Uriah sent to the front lines where he swiftly becomes a spear sponge. That way David could take Bathsheba as his own, and no one is the wiser.
But, consider the prophet Elisha and how badly he sucked by comparison. In 2 Kings 2 we see Elisha taunted by a group of boys who call him “baldhead.” Elisha, so enraged by the craven attack on his vanity, calls on God to help him get even for this slight. Two bears appear and maul 42 of the boys.
And once, the whole world sucked so badly, God sent a flood and wiped out everyone!
Jesus wasn’t afraid to point out when people sucked. He said to the Pharisees, “You people suck!” Well, his exact words were, “woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” He upbraided the Pharisees for locking people out of the kingdom of heaven, for presenting themselves as pious keepers of the law when inside they were corrupt and compassionless. He chastised them for valuing the law over mercy, justice and faith.
But, I’m afraid our own dear Jesus is not without his sucky moments. Christian doctrine posits that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. The gospels are clear about Jesus’ connection to the divine, but what about Jesus’ humanity? Christian tradition holds that Jesus was sinless, but I believe he showed his fully human side when he encountered a Gentile woman whose daughter was beset with a demon.
She begs Jesus to help her daughter and what does Jesus do? He basically calls her a dog! You can just imagine the disgust that must have welled up in Jesus’ chest in that moment. A hated Gentile woman having the temerity to ask him for help — the utter gall must have made him ill. The woman snaps him back to that divine part though when she reminds him that, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Jesus was humbled, I believe, and cured the woman’s daughter.
See, even Jesus had his moments.
“It’s all about me”
Why do people suck? Are we born that way? No, I don’t believe in the idea of original sin. A baby may be born to suck a bottle or her mother’s breast, but she does not suck in the way that we have defined it. A baby knows nothing of being mean-spirited, arrogant, uncaring, jealous, competitive or prideful. She has no notion of hatred or greed or anger.
She must be taught these things. And taught them she is, over and over again. In the home, on the playground, in the media ≠ we are taught endlessly who is in and who is out, who we should hate and who we should like. Those who look different, talk differently, carry themselves differently, dress differently, or smell differently, are bad. Those who look like us, talk like us, carry themselves like us, dress like us and smell like us are good. We learn to suck early in life, don’t we?
I think our bent toward sucking comes from Rule Number Two: “It’s all about me.”
Sucking comes from the human will to power, the very human need to feel “better than” someone else or some other group of people. We see it in the religious right’s need to condemn others to hell while making the rules of righteousness that they themselves never transgress, of course. Because, just like the Pharisees before them, when it comes to righteousness, it’s all about them!
We suck when we believe that our misery, our suffering, is somehow unique. We suck because we, believing that we have the market cornered on pain and anguish, inflict our misery on others.
Pity poor David, so driven by his personal suffering over Bathsheba that he took it out on poor Uriah. Pity poor Elisha, so insecure about his thinning hair that he has God call down bears to kill innocent children! Pity the poor Pharisees who were so offended that their piety was called into question that they had to take it out on Jesus by hanging him on a cross. Pity poor Jesus himself, who in a moment of very human weakness, lashed out a woman on the margins of society.
Not one of these people stopped to realize that pain and suffering is what we humans have in common ≠ we all suffer. It is simply a part of who and what we are. Instead, we get caught up in rule number two ≠ we believe “it’s all about me.” It’s all about my suffering. It’s all about my pain. It’s all about my comfort. It’s all about my salvation. It’s all about my luxury.
Even the disciples were obsessed with rule number two, arguing about who would sit at Jesus’ right hand. Boy, were they disappointed that to get such an honor they’d have to stop sucking and start serving.
“It’s all good”
To truly stop sucking and start serving we must, as Henri Nouwen writes, have “a constant willingness to see one’s own pain and suffering as rising from the depth of the human condition which all (humans) share.”
Jesus understood this when he told his disciples, “People, don’t suck!” His exact words were, “love one another as I have loved you,” but I feel that the meaning is the same. If we love each other as Jesus has loved us then we realize that our pain and suffering is not unique, but is the main thing we have in common with all living beings. We all suffer, and the purpose of our lives is to enter into that suffering with our fellow human beings and work to ease the suffering of us all. This is the service to which we are all called.
When we realize that we have the power to stop sucking and start serving, we can move on to rule number three: “It’s all good!”
Christian mystics had already realized this centuries ago. 14th century mystic, Julian of Norwich had a version of rule number three that went, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
I hear she had two other sayings: “People doth sucketh,” and, “It beith all about meith,” but I haven’t been able to confirm that.
But, “it’s all good,” should not be taken as merely a dismissive platitude or a clarion call to a return to simple niceness. Not sucking does not mean simply being nice to other people. Not sucking means coming to a realization, deep within that, “it’s all good,” or that, “all manner of things shall be well.”
How can that be, though, with all these people in the world sucking? How can all be well while people die of starvation, are killed in wars or murder one another over money or other worldly treasures? How can all things be well with so much suffering going on around us? How can we even believe, “it’s all good?”
Julian of Norwich is instructive for us at this junction. Julian believed that sucking, or “sin,” has no ultimate reality. When we realize our sucking, we are brought to a new level of self-knowledge and we humbly seek God’s forgiveness. We resolve to do better. We are more aware of our penchant to suck and we work to suck less.
Julian also believed that God has no wrath. There is only the wrath inside of us ≠ that wrath that believes “it’s all about me.” We don’t need the threat of eternal hell to suffer for our suckyness. To loosely paraphrase Jesus, “those who suck have their reward.” When we suck we put ourselves in hell.
Also, according to Julian, there is “hidden in God an exalted and wonderful mystery.” This mystery will make all things well in the end. We only see through a glass darkly in this world. When we achieve union with God then, and only then, will we realize the mystery that says emphatically, “it’s all good” even in the face of suffering, contradictions and strife.
We sometimes see flashes of what the world would be like if we stopped sucking and started serving.
At a fundraising dinner for a school that serves learning-disabled children, the father of one of the students ≠ a boy named Shay ≠ told the crowd that he and his son recently walked past a park where some boys Shay knew were playing baseball. Shay asked, “Do you think they’ll let me play?” Shay’s father knew that most of the boys would not want someone like Shay on their team, but the father also understood that if his son were allowed to play, it would give him a much-needed sense of belonging. Shay’s father approached one of the boys on the field and asked if Shay could play. The boy said, “We’re losing by six runs and the game is in the eighth inning. I guess he can be on our team and we’ll try to put him in to bat in the ninth inning.”
In the bottom of the eighth inning, Shay’s team scored a few runs but was still behind by three. In the top of the ninth inning, Shay put on a glove and played in the outfield. Even though no hits came his way, he was obviously ecstatic just to be in the game and on the field. In the bottom of the ninth inning, Shay’s team scored again. Now, with two outs and the bases loaded, the potential winning run was on base and Shay was next at bat. Surprisingly, Shay was given the bat. Everyone knew that a hit was all but impossible because Shay didn’t even know how to hold the bat properly, much less connect with the ball.
However, as Shay stepped up to the plate, the pitcher moved in a few steps to lob the ball in softly so Shay could at least be able to make contact. The first pitch came and Shay swung clumsily and missed. The pitcher again took a few steps forward to toss the ball softly towards Shay. As the pitch came in, Shay swung at the ball and hit a slow ground ball right back to the pitcher. The pitcher picked up the soft grounder and could have easily thrown the ball to first to end the game. Instead, the pitcher threw the ball over the first baseman’s head.
Everyone started yelling, “Shay, run to first! Run to first!”
Never in his life had Shay ever made it to first base. He scampered down the baseline, wide-eyed and startled; everyone yelled, “Run to second, run to second!” By the time Shay rounded first base, the right fielder had the ball. He could have thrown the ball to the second baseman for the tag, but he understood the pitcher’s intentions and threw the ball high and far over the third baseman’s head.
Shay ran toward second base as the runners ahead of him deliriously circled the bases toward home. Shay reached second base, the opposing shortstop ran to him, turned him in the direction of third base, and shouted, “Run to third!” As Shay rounded third, the boys from both teams were screaming, “Shay, run home!” Shay ran to home, stepped on to the plate, and was cheered as the hero who hit the “grand slam” and won the game for his team.
“That day,” said the father softly, “the boys from both teams helped bring a piece of true love and humanity into this world.”
These are people who decidedly do not suck. They understand that their suffering is not unique. They understand that they share a common human bond with this disabled child. In their game they were able to let go of their pride, their competitive nature to win at any cost, their need to put themselves or their team first. It was not all about them or their team. They abandoned all thoughts of mean-spiritedness, arrogance and unkindness. In short, they understood, at a fundamental level that, win or lose, “it’s all good.” They stopped sucking and started serving, if only for an inning.
I believe the combination of bumper stickers on my car do not contradict one another, in fact, they complement each other. The “People Suck” bumper sticker reminds me that sucking is a fact of life, something I will inevitably do ≠ but the Candler sticker reminds me of God’s presence in it all. And when we remember that, we can relax into what Julian called God’s “exalted and wonderful mystery” and say with a smile, “Rule number three.”
The founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, Rev. Candace Chellew earned her Masters of Theological studies at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. Her first book, “Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians”, was published by Jossey-Bass in 2008. She currently serves as the Spiritual Director of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C.