WEDNESDAY AFTER 2 PENTECOST — 2020
Hello, I hope this finds you well and in good spirits, and if not, I hope what I am going to share today will be helpful to you. I am Jim Jelinek, and with my colleague and friend The Rev. Alan Neale, we serve the people and community of Trinity Church, Newport, RI. I think most of you know that some of us are studying The Book of Joy, by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. All of us in the group are finding it a wonderful book that goes back and forth between mind and heart, speaking to us intellectually and spiritually at the same time. Today I want to share a portion of the chapter Gratitude: I am fortunate to be alive. It is a story not about the authors but about a man who had been in prison for a very long time. This is not my work; it is theirs, but I shall do some editing for the sake of length.
Anthony Ray Hinton spent thirty years on death row for a crime he did not commit. He was working in a locked factory at the time of the crime that he was being accused of. When he was arrested in the state of Alabama …, he was told by the police officers that he would be going to jail because he was black. He spent thirty years in a five-by-seven-foot cell in solitary confinement, allowed out only one hour a day. During this time on death row, Hinton became a counselor and friend not only to the other inmates, fifty-four of whom were put to death, but to the death row guards, many of whom begged Hinton’s attorney to get him out.
When a unanimous Supreme Court ruling ordered his release, he was finally able to walk free. “One does not know the value of freedom until one has it taken away,” he told [the author]. “People run out of the rain. I run into the rain. How can anything that falls from heaven not be precious? Having missed the rain for so many years, I am so grateful for every drop. Just to feel it on my face.”
When Hinton was interviewed on … 60 Minutes, the interviewer asked whether he was angry at those who had put him in jail. He responded that he had forgiven all the people who had sent him to jail. The interviewer incredulously asked, “But they took thirty years of your life—how can you not be angry?”
Hinton responded, “If I’m angry and unforgiving, they will have taken the rest of my life.”
Unforgiveness robs us of our ability to enjoy and appreciate our life, because we are trapped in a past filled with anger and bitterness. Forgiveness allows us to move beyond the past and appreciate the present, including the drops of rain falling on our face. […]
Hinton is a powerful example of the ability to respond with joy despite the most horrendous circumstances. As we were driving in a taxi in New York, he told me, “The world didn’t give you your joy, and the world can’t take it away. You can let people come into your life and destroy it, but I refused to let anyone take my joy. I get up in the morning, and I don’t need anyone to make me laugh. I am going to laugh on my own, because I have been blessed to see another day, and when you are blessed to see another day that should automatically give you joy.
“I don’t walk around saying, ‘Man, I ain’t got a dollar in my pocket.’ I don’t care about having a dollar in my pocket, what I care about is that I have been blessed to see the sun rise. Do you know how many people had money but didn’t get up this morning? So, which is better—to have a billion dollars and not wake up, or to be broke and wake up? I‘ll take being broke and waking up any day of the week. I told the CNN interviewer in June that I had three dollars and fifty cents in my pocket and for some reason that day I was just the happiest I have ever been. She said, ‘With three dollars and fifty cents?’ I said, ‘You know, my mom never raised us to get out there and make as much money as we can. My mom told us about true happiness. She told us that when you are happy, then when folks hang around you they become happy.’
“I just look at all the people who have so much but they are not happy. Yes, I did thirty long years, day for day, in a five by seven, and you have got some people that have never been to prison, never spent one day or one hour or one minute, but they are not happy. I ask myself, ‘Why is that?’ I can’t tell you why they are not happy, but I can tell you that I’m happy because I choose to be happy.” [pp. 242-246]
What a wonderful story about a man who lived a most difficult and challenging life! He became what his mother taught him and his siblings to be, a person of joy in the midst sadness and anger and loneliness, and he was, therefore, a resource to others.
The story is particularly relevant at this time of our incarceration due to the pandemic of the coronavirus, with simultaneous demonstrations against the evils of racism and the ways racist structures and attitudes affect our institutions and our own inner beings.
Now that we are being freed from the most narrow constraints placed upon us by our governor and others, we get to practice being free again. And it will take practice, for we are simply not used to restraining ourselves greatly when out in the world. It is one thing to talk about social distancing when we are safely in our homes either alone or with our families. It is another matter to do it moment after moment and day after day. Unless we learn to see our masks and the spaces we leave for those around us as an act of love—the gift of charity we offer to keep others safe—unless we deeply take that in, we shall be unhappy and annoyed every time we leave our homes. Yes, the masks are inconvenient: they fog up our glasses, can be uncomfortably warm, and make it harder to breathe for those with certain respiratory conditions.
It is my hope and prayer for each and all of us, that as we move back into the world again, that we will let go of any resentments we may have about being quarantined, about having part of our life taken away. Remember what Hinton said, that if we cannot let go of that, then we will still be in jail, this time a jail of our own making.
I want to close with part of a story I told last fall about one of my seminarians who went to work in a New York soup kitchen because I insisted on it. She grumbled all the way there, she told me, but before the meal began, one woman, clearly a professional woman like herself, came in and while putting on her apron said, “I just love coming here. You never know what face Jesus is going to wear this time!”
Every time we don our masks and make space for someone else, we are making space for Jesus. We make room for him in our hearts, and we make space for him around us.
I would like to close with A Prayer of Self-Dedication from our BCP [p.832]
Let us pray.
Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated to you; and then use us, we pray, as you will, and always to your glory and the welfare of your people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Stay safe, be thoughtful, be grateful and be well! God bless you all! +JLJ