July 26, 2020
For my birthday back in April, my son, Charlie, gave me a very cool gift. A membership to “23 & Me.” Using your DNA, it reveals your genetic family tree. It helps you learn about your past, and the connections you have to other people today.
When you sign up, they send you a plastic vial you have to fill up with your saliva. Doesn’t sound hard, but it’s a very big vial. And yes, it’s kind of gross.
Once you fill the vial, you seal it up in a special package, mail it in, and after a couple weeks you get a DNA report back and begin discovering where in the world your ancestors came from. What country or region. And you discover people all around the us and the world that you’re related to.
It’s all voluntary — you only give out as much personal information as you feel comfortable doing. You can contact them, and they can contact you.
I learned that I have a third cousin I never knew about, living in San Francisco.
On his 23 & Me profile, he seems like a really nice guy — I think he even looks a little like me — and I’m hoping he doesn’t mind us dropping by for a couple weeks. “look! We have the same male-pattern baldness.”
Through 23 & Me it was really no shock to learn that I’m 99.9 percent northern European. Mostly Scottish and English and Irish. Which I guess explains why I’m really into watching all those mini-series about the queen. Anything on BBC — I’m in.
But the larger truth of 23 and Me, is that although my most recent ancestors were white Europeans, moving just a little further back in time tells a DNA story that affirms a much bigger reality about humanity. It reminds us of just how connected we all are.
It affirms that while we may have some relatively minor distinctions that affect how we appear on the surface, the scientific truth is that physically, genetically — and I think spiritually — there’s barely any space at all that separates us.
And whatever space there is between us, is in our hearts and minds.
Some passage in the Bible have the power to make me cry like a baby. And romans 8:35–39 is one of those. “Nothing” — it says — “absolutely nothing — can separate us from God’s love”. It’s beautiful.
It’s not uncommon for it to be read it at funerals, and one of the greatest honors I perform in my line of work is to officiate at funerals.
It’s a dynamic of being present for a grieving family and understanding their needs, and hopefully helping them journey through their grief, while at the same time being very aware of my own stuff.
And my own stuff is my own grief. All the losses I’ve been through. All the moments when I’ve been afraid and lonely and hopeless.
That’s why the claim being made in that passage is so universal. Because being human means that we all have moments when we feel afraid, lonely and hopeless. It’s part of living.
We all seek purpose, hope, and connection.
And Paul is claiming that what he calls the “love of God through Christ Jesus” is the universal element that makes those things possible.
That love can take many forms, but Paul really nails it when he describes it as being something that we can’t separate ourselves from, even if we tried.
It’s a far greater reality than the things we construct that serve to keep us separated from others.
It’s about relationship: for sure, our relationships with people we’re connected to on a personal level. But it’s also much larger than that: it’s the truth that we belong to something bigger than our little selves.
It’s the kinship we know we have with our ancestors. It’s the connection that our descendants who’re not yet born will have with us.
And it’s the inescapable connection we have with the rest of humanity right now.
A few weeks ago I went to Michael’s — the arts and crafts store. There was a little project I was working on, and that was the only place I could think of that would have what I needed: this stuff called foam core board.
But stores like Michael’s are foreign to me. I’m not a very crafty person. I don’t do scrapbooks or sewing or painting. So I was really lost in there.
Then I happened to see a woman — another customer — carrying exactly what I was looking for: a piece of foam core board.
Everyone was wearing face masks and trying to be socially-distanced, so I kind of yelled at her, “Excuse me. Do you mind telling me where you found that?” She told me where to look, I found it, and I went to the check-out line.
Then, I heard a voice behind me. It was that woman. She said, “Do you have the coupon? It’s 20 percent off.” And she held out her phone to show me a coupon on her screen, and she told me to go to the Michael’s website on my phone and she showed me how to find the coupon, and I did.
I thanked her and said to her, “can you go shopping with me everywhere?” We both laughed.
It was no big deal. Just a little moment. Two strangers in an arts and crafts store, both needing foam core board.
But I realized later there was a lot to that encounter. She did not need to help me. Why should she care if I got 20 percent off? But she did help me — twice.
And, I’m a middle-aged white guy. She was an ethnically Asian woman. We were both wearing face masks and standing six feet apart, because there were these circles stuck on the floor telling us where to stand. But we looked each other in the eye, and we laughed.
And I realized — as subtle and seemingly insignificant as that was — that I am connected to that person. I don’t know if we’ll ever meet again. If we did, I don’t know how we’d even recognize each other. And maybe that’s why it sticks in my memory.
Because even with the distancing and even with the face masks, we both understood each other as worthy of our mutual time and attention and sharing. As human beings, we were connected. And even if we never meet again, we’re still connected.
The thing is, before I ever went into Michael’s that day, we were already connected. And especially because I remember her and I’m telling this story, we’ll continue to be connected.
My encounter with her was a microcosm of the much larger truth that’s a little mind-blowing but still true: if I’m connected to that person, then I’m connected to every person.
My 23 & Me DNA report says I’m mostly northern European, and her report would most likely say that her ancestors came from a particular province in china.
But we know that if you go back far enough — to a time way beyond recorded history — we all share a common ancestor from somewhere in sub-Sahara Africa.
In the big picture of humanity, we’re all just leaves dangling from different branches of the same family tree. The tree of life.
So, that’s nice, but why is it the least bit important? And what does it have to do with believing that we’re never separated from the love of God? I think it has everything to do with it.
Love is the glue that binds us together. Love is the sap flowing through the human family tree.
I feel that I’ve had many encounters with God, with the Holy, with that love Paul talks about, the love we’re never separated from. For me, those encounters have consistently been through the presence of another human being. When I’ve been awakened to my connection with them.
And I think that’s exactly what Jesus embodied so perfectly. God’s presence, God’s compassion, God’s wisdom, God’s healing, God’s self-giving love. Right there in a flesh-and-blood person.
A person who had every human emotion; the same fears, the same loneliness, the same temptations, the same courage, the same grief, the same hope, the same sadness and the same joy as any one of us. Otherwise he would not have been fully human.
It’s important to remember that. And to remember that because Jesus was the very embodiment of love, we’ve been shown what it means to be fully human.
It’s to know how connected we truly are to one another, across space and time. Connected by love. And to act like it.
Too often, though, we lose sight of that. We start to believe that being separated from each other is the normal nature of things.
We’ve been taught that insignificant differences — like the color of someone’s skin, or their sexual orientation, or the language they speak, or the place they were born, or how much money they have in the bank, or their gender, or their level of formal education, or their age, or their physical or cognitive ability, or the flag that waves above the country they call home, or the religious belief that beats in their heart, or no belief at all…we’ve been taught, and we’ve bought into the idea, that those are the things that define us.
We’ve been carefully taught that those minuscule differences are like weights on a scale to determine the value of a human life.
And that all those things we use to define ourselves then means that there’s a hierarchy to who is more valuable. And that we’re naturally more separate, more different, more alien, than we are alike.
But that is a lie. It’s a lie, because nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Nothing. The differences we create between people — people of every race, creed and color who are the living embodiment of God’s love — those differences are so laughably tiny — they are nothing — compared to the majestic interwoven love that truly binds us to one another.
Have you ever been to a nursery or preschool, and watched how little children who’ve yet to learn to be afraid of people who look and sound different — have you ever watched them? How they play together? How they run and laugh together? With joyful, unselfconscious abandon.
How — when they might even get cross with one another over a toy, or territory in the sandbox — they can still figure out how to share, and will give each other a hug?
How, when one of them falls and gets hurt, another will go to that hurt one and attend to them. If you’ve ever seen that, you’ve witnessed the truth of what humanity is really about. You’ve seen that connecting love that nothing can separate us from.
But that truth is too quickly obscured by being taught that it’s necessary to feel insecure. Think about it: no one is born feeling unsafe or insecure or disconnected. That’s learned.
And we grow up to build institutions and enact policies to create our sense of security. We create differences like our race, our country, our team, our tribe, our political party, our religion. We grow to believe that us against them is the natural way things operate.
But the apostle Paul calls that nonsense. He calls it nothing.
Paul didn’t know about DNA, but he did know that the love of God that connects us all, means that any “us against them” — any fear or distrust of another person based on a perceived difference, is a delusion.
The reality is love. The reality is that we’re bound together, that we’re all related, connected, and that we share a common destiny.
So when any of us are hurting, grieving, afraid or lonely, we all hurt. And when anyone suffers a wrong, an injustice, or an injury, we’re all responsible for making it right.
When I first got my 23 & Me results, I discovered I had another third cousin, this one living in Brooklyn. I looked at his profile. It didn’t say much, but he’s about my age. What struck me initially, though, was his photograph. He’s a black man.
I was considering reaching out to both of those third cousins, the one on the west coast and the one in Brooklyn, to see if they’d be interested in connecting.
Then the reality of COVID drew my time and attention was elsewhere, so I didn’t think too much about 23 & Me for a while. I still haven’t reached out to either of them, yet. And when I do, I don’t know if they’ll even respond. I hope so. I want to know about them and their lives.
I want to celebrate any connections I have and grow more alert to the truth and live into the reality that I’m connected with all people, everywhere. And to think of them and treat them accordingly; as my sisters and brothers.
I want to affirm the truth that nothing can ever separate us from one another, and from the love of god that flows through the tree of life.
And I want to do my part — I want to wake up more and more, to see that love, and live in that love, and be joyful in that love.
And work hard to embody that love that connects me to you, and every member of our human family.