Monday, July 25, 2016

us vs. them

(Below is the text of a message I gave at Circular Congregational Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on July 24, 2016. It references the following biblical passage:
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” - Luke 18:9-14)
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I remember exactly how I felt. You know when something makes you so angry that tears immediately spring up in the back of your eyes? That's the feeling I’m talking about. 
But as I looked around the room, I quickly realized that no one else was as angry as I was. They didn't even seem annoyed. It looked like they were totally unaware that what this woman had just said could offend anyone who was there that night.
A little back story: I was at a Bible study, and we were having a conversation about mission, and what it means to share our faith with other people. This topic alone made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I’m not really the kind of Christian who tells people about Jesus. I’m more likely to evangelize for a new restaurant I really like than to invite someone to come to church with me. So when the conversation drifted towards how we talk about the gospel to quote “nonbelievers”, I was all set to tune out.
Then someone asked the priest leading the study if people of other religions evangelize the way Christians are known to do. He confessed that he really didn’t know, because he hadn’t spent much time studying other religions. Naturally, I felt the urge to chime in, as I had long ago designated myself the voice of the liberals in this conservative group.
“Well,” I said, “my understanding is that Christians definitely do more evangelizing than any other major world religions. You don’t see a whole lot of Jewish groups trying to gain converts, for example. Depending on how you classify Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, they’re really known for their mission work—knocking on doors, going on mission trips, that sort of thing. If you lump those two under Christianity, the next most mission-oriented religion would probably be Islam, although they’re a distant second.”
When I said this, a woman across the circle from me made a joke: “If they come knocking," she said, "I wouldn’t be answering that door!”
Almost everybody laughed. “Oh my God,” I said under my breath. 
Yeah, that’s really what I said. 
I know she saw the exasperation on my face, and probably heard me, because she apologized to the group a couple minutes later for speaking without thinking. After class, she came up to me individually and told me about how she’s trying to be more accepting of different people. Told me a story about her son marrying a woman of a different race and background. She was mortified by the whole situation. So was I.
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This interaction happened a few months ago during a Bible study at a church much more conservative than Circular...although to be fair, that’s not a hard distinction to gain! 
I had decided to join this 9-month-long study, called Disciple, because I’m friends with the priest and his wife, and because I wanted to force myself to discuss theology with people different from me. 
It was a struggle to make myself go every week. I could tell dozens of other stories like this one, stories about how uncomfortable I felt, stories of how I disagreed with everyone there, stories of how I often wanted to cry or scream or make a sarcastic comment.
(Okay, I succumbed to that last urge more often than I’d like to admit).
I have a lot of stories of situations that, frankly, made me feel intellectually and often morally superior to everyone else in the room. Whether I meant to or not, I often saw myself as the educated, enlightened, accepting liberal riding in on my white horse to save these misguided, backwards people from their ignorance. 
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There’s this great podcast, an interview series, that I like to listen to. It's called The Liturgists. I highly recommend it if you’re something of a seeker and like thinking about theology. In one episode, they talk about how to tell the difference between being prophetic and being a self-righteous jerk. I like to think I walk that line pretty consistently, but honestly I know I err on the jerk side a lot of the time.
One of the hosts of the show calls himself Science Mike, which alludes to his profession as well as his tendency to analyze everything and break it down into systems. In this episode, Science Mike ends by talking about his system for deciding when he should, and when he shouldn’t, share something he thinks is a “prophetic truth” with other people. Here are the questions he asks himself:
Number 1: Am I communicating honestly and without hostility? 
Number 2: Am I speaking for someone or against something? At whom or what is this really directed?
Number 3: What will I get out of saying this? Does this bolster me in some way? 
And lastly, number 4: Is this driven by social identity? In other words, am I saying this because a group I’m part of would agree with it, or because I really believe it?
These questions all get a bit technical, but the basic point is this: it’s a good idea to ask ourselves if we’re saying or doing something we think is just or good or righteous, out of a desire to love and to help and to change things for the better, or because we want to feel good about ourselves.
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This brings me to the parable in Luke 18. The Pharisee in this passage fails Science Mike’s test with flying colors.
I could have a field day with this one. I’m sure we all could. It’s so easy to see and point out everything this guy is doing wrong…because there’s so much he’s doing wrong! He’s like the poster child for Jesus’ collection of bad examples! In other words…well, he's acting a lot like I do sometimes. 
That’s what I love and hate about parables...they always surprise me. As soon as we identify with someone, pick a good guy and a bad guy, we miss the point. As soon as I vilify the Pharisee, I become like him...intent on pointing out how much better I would behave in his situation. Just like he did to the tax collector, I make him into an outsider…the one who, unlike me, is doing it wrong. One of them.
Every Sunday at Circular, we say, “Whoever you are, and wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” I believe we mean it. But sometimes welcoming everyone is really, really uncomfortable. This is true no matter what community we’re talking about and no matter how hard we try. This may be especially true in our current political context. There are a lot of directions to point fingers in. The “us vs. them” mentality is difficult to escape.
At the church where I did that Bible study, “they” might be Muslim people, or LGBT people, or people who don’t wear the right clothes or have the right jobs. At Circular, “they” might be people who say "All Lives Matter", or oppose gay marriage, or watch Fox News every night. We certainly wouldn't make them leave or anything that obvious, but I'm not sure they would feel welcome here either.
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This is not to say that we shouldn’t have principles. Circular’s principles, guided by the life of Jesus, require us to work together to create a more just world. This means paying attention to privilege and trying to level the playing field, or to put it in more religious language, bringing about the kingdom of God on earth.
But we have to be careful about how we communicate our principles, and what we imply the consequences are if someone doesn’t agree with them. 
Do we have a conversation? 
Do we acknowledge our shared humanity? 
Do we respond in love?
Or do we, like the Pharisee in the parable, thank God that we are not like them
Do we, like I did with that woman from the Bible study, roll our eyes and mutter under our breath? 
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In the wake of the Dallas shootings a couple of weeks ago, I started seeing a quotation pop up all over the internet: “Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions.” 
You know who said that? George W. Bush. Yeah, that George W. Bush.
Reading this quote, and remembering who said it, gets at the heart of the issue for me. We need to have bigger imaginations than we often do. We need to see possibility in each other, to see the image of God, the face of Christ, in everyone...even, or perhaps especially, in people we disagree with. 
The good news we profess in this community is that everyone is welcome here, and that everyone deserves love and justice. We proclaim this every Sunday. Each day following, we work to make this proclamation a reality in the wider world.
The question is, are we going to carry out our mission of love and justice in a spirit of self-righteousness, or in a spirit of love and compassion for everyone? Really, truly everyone?
I don’t know about you, but I know that I’ll need a little help and a lot of grace to do that. I trust we’ll receive it, if we ask. Thanks be to God.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

What I've learned, or not


Lately I've been waking up in the middle of the night, around 3 or 4 usually, and just...lying there. Insomnia's not that unusual, I know, but it's unusual for me. Right now, in fact, I'm having a little bit of it--11:58pm and my eyelids haven't even started to droop. It seemed like a good idea to write.

I've been 30 years old for a whole three weeks now, plus a little extra. My friend Sydney and I wrapped up more than a month of celebration last night with her perfect gift to me: dinner at the Wild Olive, a restaurant that's been on my to go list for years and years. It was at least as good as I expected it to be, better. Then today we walked on the beach, made breakfast, lunch, and dinner, drank wine and watched a rom com (somehow the abbreviated version of that term makes it even more apt). A perfect couple of white women days, really. Sunned, sanded, and wiped out, I would expect to go right to sleep. Here I am, though, thinking, writing, lying here again.

Perhaps what has been giving me pause is the strangely anticlimactic feeling accompanying what everyone has assured me is a pivotal birthday. 30. Three decades, each one vastly different from the last, each inhabited by a different person, really.

My sister asked me a couple of weeks ago what I had learned during my twenties. I balked, then responded with an answer I probably shouldn't post publicly. She told me that by the time she turned 30, she had learned not to have more than three drinks in a night. Nope, haven't learned that lesson yet.

Since then the question has lingered in the back of my mind. What have I learned? Anything? Something, surely. Right?

Doubt is so much more a part of my life than ever before. College taught me to doubt, and divinity school imprinted that quality into my identity. Take nothing at face value. Always look again, and again, and again. When I think about what I've learned, doubt is the first thing that comes to mind.

Doubt doesn't seem like the best starting point for a list of lessons, but maybe what I've learned doesn't fit in a list. Lists are too permanent, or they try to make things so. Recently I was telling my mom that big decisions scare me because I've never been certain about anything, at least not for long. Depending on the day, my ambivalence has sometimes led me to embrace change but more often to flee from it. I may not be certain about what I'm already doing, but at least it's comfortable; at least it's already happening. I have inertia going for me, which is nice.

But on a good day, that doubt can take me in the opposite direction. It can remind me that nothing--not my resolve, not my circumstances, not my understanding--is final. Look again, it says. Try again. Reconsider. Change. Grow.

This brings to mind the book of Ecclesiastes, and particularly its oft-repeated claim about life: "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity."

That's an uplifting life lesson, right?

It's important to note that the word used for vanity in Ecclesiastes is the Hebrew hebel, which is often translated as "breath" or "vapor," indicating impermanence, futility, and delusion. But what else does breath point towards? Life.

That's it, really: what I've learned. It's all breath, or breaths, all uncertainty and change, failure followed by triumph followed by despair followed by joy. Mostly all of it wrapped up together, but in some kind of uncontrollable whirlwind rather than a neat package.


Maybe in another ten years I'll have a list. For now, this is about all I've got.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

next time


I’ve thought a lot of grace
on this windy, wintry day (wintry in the Carolina sense—
60, maybe, and gray).

Is this resurrection—
a dimness we cannot fathom, a mirror reflecting darkly,
an overcast spring day?

Perhaps this dimness is
all we can take for now, lit up about as bright as we can stand.
Grace given with more grace.

I want to believe this:
the world has a life of its own we cannot kill, not completely, 
despite our best efforts.

It will come back, for good,
and next time we’ll want it, greet it with open hearts and brimming eyes.
I can see it, almost.

For now, let it all go.
All of it. Empty yourself, turn back towards that far off spring, and
look, always look again.