At HDS, we understand faith to mean engagement with the future. From the first day of classes, HDS has drilled one question into my soul: how can my lifetime offer something to the future? How can reading this book, writing this paper, learning this ancient language, and taking on this field education placement offer something to the future? How can encounters with suffering and possibility offer something to the future? Here’s a little story.
Exactly a year ago, I received an email from one of my little brothers of choice. His twin sister had just died after a long battle against a complex medical condition. She was 26. The news of her passing was my first encounter with a peculiar kind of suffering: the oceanic, inexplicable, unspeakable kind that just does not make sense. She was too young, too loving, too special. Their dad kept repeating: “No, she’s not dead. My daughter is not dead.”
It didn’t help that I was in the throes of my own transition to HDS. The insights we kept unearthing from reflecting and writing about learned ministry and many faces of religious experience were beginning to shake my core. HDS’s safe and diverse community of learning and transformation had already ushered me into the humbling and undeniable limits of what I can comprehend or change. Here was yet another encounter that beckoned me to humility.
I did not have a plan. I had no idea what to say to my little brother. What I did know was what I did not want to say: platitudes. “Things happen for a reason.” Yeah, right. That clearly helps when you don’t know why something has happened to you or someone you love, or how you are going to be the new person your new circumstances are challenging you to become. Here’s another one: “Better days are to come.” Uh huh? That clearly helps when someone feels they are drowning in the 12-foot end of the pool, and there is no one around. Thank you, but no thank you. I’ll take some calming silence instead.
My little brother had told me to ring him an hour after our Theories & Methods class—a required course for all M.Div. and MTS students. Theories & Methods introduced me to a professor whose generosity of heart has sustained me at HDS: Charles Hallisey. I went up to him after lecture to seek his counsel regarding my anxieties about the dreaded phone call.
“I don’t know what to say to him. And I don’t want to whip out the usual, useless platitudes,” I said.
“That’s precisely where you’ll find your voice,” he said. “In that silence. In that inability to say anything.”
“So, I’m supposed to tell him that I don’t know what to say?”
That was not exactly the counsel I had expected to receive. I still had no plan. The clock kept ticking. Ten minutes before I had to call, I sat on a bench outside the Law School Library to reflect and pray. I prayed to make peace with saying to someone I love that I did not know what to say.
My prayer was fairly orderly and coherent at the beginning:
“Lord, please use my voice to radiate some light and warmth in this dark time.”
As the time drew near, my prayer came down to fewer and fewer words until only one word came to mind:
“Please. Please. Please. Pretty please, Lord. Have mercy. Please. Please. Please.”
I took a deep breath. I called. I heard his voice. And I began to utter the words I had dreaded: “I am so sorry. I don’t know what to say. And I’m here. You can yell. You can hang up. You can weep. You can do whatever you want. I’m sorry, and I’m here.”
My heart rate slowed down. Being true-true—no matter how incompetent it made me feel—was easier than I had thought. Next thing I knew, we had been talking for 45 minutes.
I cherish the memory of that phone call. What makes its memory worth cherishing is not just Professor Hallisey’s intentional and gentle challenge. He had sent me away with a religious question, a very HDS question: how can acknowledging that I do not know what to say offer something to the future? It’s also what the phone call became: a song of joy.
The wound was too fresh, the grief too acute to ignore, dismiss, or wish away.
And yet, neither of us could take our eyes off the future we share.
“We don’t have a lot of time,” my little brother said.
He is not wrong.
He and I are where we are thanks to sisters like his and many others who had embraced and unleashed us back when we were still buried deep inside the closet. He and I are who we are thanks to sisters like his and many others who chose to have faith in the stories they saw in us.
Our time with his sister was over. Our story wasn’t. We renewed our commitment to keep writing it. Yes, things can and will inevitably fall apart along the way. And yes, we can and must pick up the pieces for the future—intentionally and joyfully. We owe it to the audacity of our sisters. We owe it to the future. Many more notes of joy filled the song my little brother and I sang in that dark hour.
I do not know what seasons of struggles and moments of glory await as my second year at HDS starts. And I am prepared. HDS has impressed upon my soul the disciplined practice of transforming each and every paragraph of my story into an offering for our future. That is our story. That is our song. Please join us in singing it with humble notes of intense joy.