By Jennifer Lyon
There was a picture in my 11th grade US history textbook that grabbed my attention and hasn't let it go since. I can remember staring at a photo of a little black girl in her little white dress surrounded by US Marshalls as she changed an ordinary day of school into a civil rights victory.
With the first step of her well-worn shoe onto the cold tile floor of that New Orleans Elementary school, the world changed for Ruby Bridges, and all children of color to come behind her. The weight of school integration was placed on the thin shoulders of 7 year old. The picture of that moment has captivated me- little Ruby Bridges what must she have been thinking?
This summer I got the chance to meet Ruby Bridges, I was surprised that she was no longer seven, like she had always been in my mind thanks to that picture. Grown up Ruby Bridges spoke of that day, and the days before when the NAACP knocked on the door to ask her parents if they would allow Ruby to participate in this grand social experiment called integration. Ruby says her Dad was immediately against the idea, sensing the danger to his daughter, but her mom wanted Ruby to have the best chance in life, and that meant having the best education, and the best education was at the white school. Ms. Bridges won the argument, solidifying her daughter's place in history. Ruby says that the last thing her mom told her as she went to school was” Ruby Bridges, you be good.” I finally had the answer to the question my 11thgrade mind asked, what little Ruby Bridges was thinking about on way up those steps… she was thinking about what it meant to be good.
What did her mom mean be good? Did she mean use your best handwriting, don't confuse your b's and d's , be sure you differentiate between your squares and your rectangles? Or did she mean be good like remember to raise you hand before you talk, cross your legs when sit, or say please and thank you? How's a first grader to know? How can anyone of us know what being good means? We're told, be a good Christian, be a good seminary student, be a good wife, a citizen, a good Dad, a good pet owner, a good Braves fan. How are we to know what any of that really means?
Another student was thinking about what it meant to be good and so he decided to ask a teacher. He heard this teacher wasn't easy to get a straight answer out of, folks would ask him a direct question and he would start telling a story. Other's would ask a question that seemed to them to have an obvious answer, and this teacher would say something so completely out of left field they would wonder if they heard him correctly. So the young man thought hard about how best to ask his questions, because he really cared about the answer. Was he good enough? He has always done what he was told, when his other rich young friends are out having parties, and using their wealth and status to victimize and shame. Our protagonist is memorizing Torah and praying in the temple. This is the kid with perfect attendance in Sabbath School, the teenager who hangs around after youth group to ask one more question, the young adult who volunteers for the cleanup committee after every festival. He says' yes ma'am to mother, he gives his tithe, and when he sees a need he gives more.
But the question still plagues him, “Is it enough?” His fingernails are bitten down to the quick and he's worn a hole through the camel skin rug on his floor with pacing he's done thinking about it. And as he makes his way through the crowd on a clear sunny morning, his anxiety gets the best of him and the calm mask he tried to wear shatters- and caring nothing for the expensive clothing he's wearing throws himself down at the feet of Jesus.
“Good teacher, help me out, I am trying to figure out what it means to be good enough for God and I need to know if I've got the right? The crowd around him seems to disappear while he waits for Jesus answer- Why do call me good? What makes you think I have the answer to your question? That's really God's call.
The young man's head falls, and he thinks …this is your answer, I should have known. Jesus interrupts his thought as he starts listing familiar commandments form the Law of Moses, slowly like hearing the winning lottery numbers being called out matching the ticket in your hand, the young man's face lifts, his eyes brighten, and he stands up.
“I've done those since I was a kid; I'm good at that stuff…”
He starts to exhale for the first time since this conversation began, but something in Jesus' face tells him that there is more to this answer…The rest of the conversation goes by in a blur, and before he knows it he walking the long way home, its less crowded so no one will see the tears falling from his eyes.
The story of the rich young ruler is our story. Like seeing our reflection in the mirror, we recognize the insecurity that stares back at us. We too have followed a path, many of us from our youth that has led us to this campus. We find ourselves, on the edge of seat with our hand raised,
“Good Teacher Slater- how do I interpret Revelation”, “Good Teacher Gushee, I have an ethical situation with the youth I am working with and I don't know if I am handling it right”? “Good Teacher Younger when is my preaching good enough to maybe get a real job”?
It's not that we don't trust our calling, or honor the time and investment of former pastors, friends, and mentors. We even think we have some giftedness- so just to make sure we took our fifteenth Myers- Briggs inventory, identified our theological worlds, plotted our social location, and analyzed our leadership style. But when we're honest, there is still that nagging question… are all these things I have done well enough.
When I started seminary a couple of years ago, I will admit I was intimidated by you people. Professors who I knew and loved by proxy- as my husband Trey had navigated the McAfee waters a few years before-would now judge me on my own merit. Classmates, fresh out of undergrad degrees with brilliant brains and endless energy – I wasn't sure I had enough of either. And then there were those of you who had successful careers in everything from accounting, to nursing and had enough faith in God and yourself to reroute your lives- that takes courage I didn't know if I had. I can remember losing sleep that first semester, not only to the massive amount of reading assigned, but because I honestly didn't know if I could do this- If I was good enough. Some days I'm still not sure, its in those times I breath in the reality that the fruit of the spirit- The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, AND goodness. Like a gifted gardener, the Spirit creates and cultivates goodness and then gives that goodness a home in me an you. Let that settle into you for a minute. Goodness is not ours to obtain it is an outgrowth of our relationship with the creator. A Creator who looks at the creation and calls it good.
I don't think Ruby Bridges' mother was talking about her academic skills that November day when she turned loose her daughters hand to face a hostile crowd- reminding her little girl to be good. I think she was telling Ruby something much more profound in that short command- she was telling Ruby to be who she was -because that was good enough.
To be good even though others would not be good to her.
To let the goodness inside her be evident on the outside.
“Be good Ruby Bridges.”
So when Ruby heard the taunts and hatred spewing form the crowd outside the school calling her names and saying she was not good enough to be there- she would know that was a lie.
When we've heard too many lies and we've forgotten the truth, when those insecurities compel us to throw ourselves at the feet of Jesus begging to know once and for all if what we've done is good enough- May we remember that we are asking the wrong question. Maybe a better question is where God's goodness is blooming in our lives right now-and how can we nurture that fruit. How can we learn to trust the goodness already at work within us and learn to act on those impulses? Let's give up trying to be “good enough” , instead lets trust fruit the Spirit has planted. Because the scary thing is one of these days while we're teaching a class, loading up the middle-schoolers for ski trip, or standing at the back of the church shaking hands after a soul stirring sermon… someone will run up to us grab our hands and say in anguish “ Good teacher”…. And our first thought will be “Why do you call me good” – then we will look at them and love them, because we know exactly how they feel.
Jennifer Lyon is in-between her second and third year as a dual degree MDiv and MS in Nonprofit Leadership student at McAfee School of Theology. This blog is the manuscript from her sermon preached in McAfee's chapel last month. Jennifer also serves, with her husband Trey, as a CBF Field Personnel and works at Lydia's House — a nonprofit organization in Grant Park housed in Park Avenue Baptist Church.