The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Sunday, June 22, 2008

"Politely looking away", expanded

June 22, 2008
Pentecost 6A, Proper 7
Matthew 10:24-39

O God: help and govern us, whom you have set upon the sure foundation of your lovingkindness. Amen.

A friend of mine in seminary used to often proclaim that she was “politely looking away”.

When someone said something inopportune or socially inappropriate, she would “politely look away”.

When someone sneezed particularly loudly, my friend would “politely look away”.

If someone had food stuck in his or her teeth, you could bet that if she noticed, my friend would be “politely looking away”.

We always laughed at her pronouncements. If I were entirely honest I would admit that we occasionally even engaged in behavior that encouraged her pronouncements. But, they were never over anything serious. They were, however, signs of my friend’s discomfort around violations of the dictums of polite society. Like most of us, her parents taught her about what was polite and what was acceptable and what was not. Like most of us, she rejected impropriety as it had been taught to her. And like most of us, she became uncomfortable when she was faced with those inevitable occasions of impropriety.

It’s often important to uphold the standards of polite society. We live around a lot of people in not a lot of space. And that’s as it should be. We are social creatures and we all need some measure of community to ensure both our emotional and physical survival. But, if we didn’t have some norms for appropriate ways of interacting with one another, society could quickly become intolerable.

For example: If you’re at a party, and someone you’ve just met drops food on their shirt, they’re probably embarrassed enough. You’re probably better off “politely looking away” than doing anything that may add to their embarrassment.

Or: When a teenager on the New Jersey Turnpike cuts you off at highway speeds, it’s hard not to get angry. But it’s usually more appropriate to just “politely look away”. If you try to rectify the situation, it’s entirely likely that you’ll create more problems than you’ll solve.

But what about those other times? What about those times when the social rules by which we all have been raised are less clear about the ideal course of action?

What if you suspect a coworker of behaving inappropriately? Is it better to “politely look away” then? It’s almost certainly easier, but is it better? What if that impropriety involved the abuse or harassment of another? Is it even okay to “politely look away” then?

And what if you are the one being harassed or abused? Could you “politely look away”? If you did, how would it affect the wellbeing of your soul?

When we “politely look away”, we are usually just trying to “keep the peace”. But, one of the great misunderstandings of the Christian movement is that we are, or at least should be, a peaceful people. I think that’s a big mistake.

In our gospel lesson this morning we hear Jesus say, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

They are challenging words: “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” They seem to stand in defiance of everything that we tend to believe about Jesus and the church. Is this the same Jesus who calmed the raging sea by saying “Peace! Be still!”? Perhaps, but it’s also the same Jesus who grew angry and turned over the tables in the temple. To randomly label the Christian movement as one of peace is not a full picture of all that we are called to be.

God’s call to us is far greater than a call to “keep the peace”. We are called to speak truth to power. In his paraphrase of this morning’s text, Eugene Peterson says this:

“Don’t be intimidated. Eventually everything is going to be out in the open, and everyone will know how things really are. So don’t hesitate to go public now. Don’t be bluffed into silence by the threats of bullies. There’s nothing they can do to your soul.”

I do believe that we are called to avoid violence in all of its forms, but that should never be mistaken for the idea that we are called to avoid all conflict. Too often, Christians have been “intimidated” and “bluffed into silence” in the face of conflict or discomfort. In our efforts at being good Christians we have “politely looked away”. Too often, still, that kind of “politely looking away” means looking away from the injustice in the world.

It has been a persistent problem in the church. In just the brief history of the American church, we can point to countless examples of occasions when the church has “politely looked away” in the face of injustice. Through the ravages of racism, sexism, poverty, homophobia and heterosexism, and xenophobia, the church has too often first encountered these issues while “politely looking away”. Too often we have been concerned first and foremost with “keeping the peace”.

We become blinded by our desire to be “peaceful”, and we forget God’s call to “do justice and love kindness”.

Later today, we will baptize Colette Lorraine Hom. Baptism is a bit of a strange time in the life of the church. As we welcome our newest members, we are filled with joy and anticipation of the new Christian life that is to be. Often so much so, that our joy can cloud the gravity of the promises that we will make in the presence of God and one another.

Our Baptismal Covenant asks us: “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”

“Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?”

These are not, on their own, peaceful tasks. They are difficult to achieve, and they can almost never be achieved by “politely looking away”. They involve digging in. Getting your hands dirty. Challenging yourself.

When we promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons”, we don’t offer any exclusions on the basis race, gender, or economic status. What would it mean to “seek and serve Christ in all persons” when confronted by a beggar on the street? What would it mean to “seek and serve” the Christ in the person of the coworker who is abusing another?

When we promise to “strive for justice and peace among all people” we don’t qualify our promise on the basis of sexual orientation or national origin. How might we “strive for justice” for the day laborers who wait outside the train station each day in the hopes of finding work? How would our community be different if we committed ourselves to “striving for justice” at the expense of whatever internal prejudices we might be harboring?

It’s a difficult thing, this Christianity. We’re not just called to go to church on Sundays and to be people “at peace”. A lot is asked of us. Today we’ll be asking it of Colette and her sponsors, but we’ll also be asking it again of ourselves. The promises that we make will be much more than “politely looking away” for the sake of “keeping the peace”. In fact, we’ll be promising NOT to “politely look away”. We’ll be promising to jump in, head first, and fight.

It won’t be easy.

But we will, with God’s help.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The challenge of politely looking away

The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of York

A friend of mine from seminary used to often declare that she was "politely looking away". Whenever something was embarrassing or uncomfortable, rather than addressing the issue or seeing that it was stopped or finding ways not to be embarrassed or uncomfortable, she would, instead, "politely look away".

We would always laugh at her declarations. Of course they were a passive-aggressive way of dealing with her discomfort. It was never about anything big, mind you. Perhaps someone had coughed or sneezed at an inopportune moment. Perhaps a piece of food was stuck in someone's teeth.

The Church of England, however, has been involved in this kind of passive-aggressive "politely looking away" for a number of years with regard to its response to issues of human sexuality.

The hypocrisy is unreal. The party line in the C of E speaks of their concerns over human sexuality as if it is a problem somehow outside their ranks.

In his lecture on Tuesday, Gene Robinson spoke about how despite the fact that he had personally met hundreds of gay and lesbian priests in the Church of England, Anglicans of that Province continue to ask him if the Church should "consider ordaining gay and lesbian priests".

They're "politely looking away" from the reality that is right in front of them!

In the past few years, since gays and lesbians in the UK have had the benefits of registered civil partnerships, the state church has had a difficult balancing act to uphold in maintaining its strategy of "politely looking away".

The party line from Lambeth Palace was that should priests in the Church of England decide to avail themselves of the civil liberties afforded to gay and lesbian people in the UK, they must first seek their bishop's permission, and do so in tandem with a vow that they will not engage in sexual activity with their partners. What is the end result of all of this? Systematic "politely looking away".

The problem with "politely looking away", however, is that it denies reality. And when the church works so hard at denying reality, the church becomes dangerously likely to become (or become more so, or remain) irrelevant. And that's what seems to be happening now.

It is now being reported that within the past two weeks, two gay men, both Anglican priests, have been married in the Church of St. Bartholomew the Great in London. It was done in a very traditional service of worship, according to the marriage rite prescribed in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

Now the leadership of the Church of England are in something of a fluster because the actions of two of their priests (particularly because of the media coverage around the event) are making it ever so harder for them to "politely look away" from the reality that surrounds them.

In a joint statement, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York have said:

"Those clergy who disagree with the church's teaching are at liberty to seek to persuade others within the church of the reasons why they believe, in the light of scripture, tradition and reason that it should be changed. But they are not at liberty to disregard it."

I have to admit, I agree with the Archbishops. It is true that injustice is better and more effectively confronted from within the systems of power. That is, IF it is possible to do so. IF the systems of authority will (or CAN) hear you.

The problem in this situation is that the systems of power within the Church of England CANNOT hear those prophets crying in the wilderness for a new way to experience the reign of God in humanity. They are too busy "politely looking away" as if that will somehow cause their "problems" to go away.

And, as the Archbishops are discovering, when an institution's rules become so wildly out-of-sync with the norms and values of society at large, the institution becomes irrelevant and the society at large DOES "disregard it" or its rules. That's what is happening in the Church of England. It has been happening for decades as church attendance has been steadily declining - I recently heard that church attendance rates in the UK are now around 4%. Most people don't skip church because they reject Christianity, or God, or faith. Most people who skip church do so because they see the church as irrelevant. And when we use "politely looking away" as our guiding principle in dealing with difficulty or discomfort, we cannot help but become irrelevant - not only in perception, but in fact.

In this Sunday's Gospel text we will hear Matthew's Jesus say, "I have not come to bring peace...." We of the Church should hear that lesson. As the Body of Christ, we are not called to bring "peace". We are, however, called to bring about the reign of God in the world. Often getting there is not a "peaceful" process. We cannot achieve God's vision for humanity by "politely looking away".

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A little shameless bragging...

I hope you'll suffer a little shameless bragging on my part.

I continue to find myself amazed at the life that I've built for myself in the past few years. I have somehow found ways to surround myself with giants of faith and spirituality. ...With "celebrities" of my industry that I have respected and admired from afar for many years.

I have a few stories of such experiences - I'll undoubtedly regale you with these stories at a later time when I can think of nothing else to write about - but tonight I want to concentrate on just one.

One that happened TONIGHT, no less!

A dear friend of mine called last night to inform me that he and the rector of the parish where he serves were going to be attending a lecture and conversation tonight by the Right Reverend V. Gene Robinson. It was to take place in New York City at the LGBT Community Center in Chelsea. He invited me to join the two of them for dinner and then the lecture. After some last minute schedule shuffling, I agreed to join them.

I've met Gene several times since we first met at General Convention in 2006 (pictured above).

That I had even met him ONCE should be exciting enough for me. I distinctly remember sitting at my apartment in Baton Rouge, Louisiana five years ago and reading about "the gay bishop".

I knew that I had felt called by God to lead the life of an ordained person. But I believed that either God had gotten it wrong, or that I had misunderstood God's call in my life. I couldn't believe that God could call ME - an openly gay man - to lead God's people in the church. I had been taught that such a dream was not possible. So clearly, either I was wrong or God was wrong.

Even though I was not an Episcopalian at the time, I felt strangely liberated by the idea that the Episcopal "corner of the kingdom" was taking a step toward including all of God's people in the life and ministry of the church.

It would be another two years before I would begin to acknowledge that God might be calling me to be a priest in The Episcopal Church - that I might have heard God's call right the first time, but that I had heard it in the wrong church!

So, for all of this time I had been reading about Bishop Robinson, following the developments of his emerging new episcopal ministry, praying for him and giving thanks to God for the difficult trail that he is cutting. Never in this time did I imagine that I would meet him several times, even to the point of him seeming to recognize me and converse with me!

So here's how tonight went:

As we were standing in line to enter the lecture hall, Gene was wandering around and seemed to recognize me. He came over and we shook hands and I reintroduced myself.

After we took our seats, my friend was looking at my copy of Gene's book, when Gene came over and asked if he could borrow it. It seems that he didn't have a copy handy to read during the lecture. Of course I allowed it, so now I can brag that he read my copy of his book!

The lecture, reading, and following discussion were, of course, amazing.

After it all, I went up to him and asked him to sign my book, which he graciously did.

Here's his inscription:

In case you can't read it on my phone photography:

For Jon-
Blessings on you!
See you at Lambeth!
+V. Gene Robinson

So pardon me, please, if I indulge in a little shameless bragging. It was a good day!

A visualization of culture shock

In my four years as a resident of New Jersey, I've often said that my biggest culture shock has come not in churches, not in the frenetic pace at which people move around here, not in the cost of housing, not in the significant racial and ethnic diversity of the people. No, my biggest culture shock has always happened in the grocery store.

My native Louisiana has a rich history culinary excellence. We like our food rich, spicy, and decadent, and we celebrate it when we achieve those goals. Yes, there are hundreds of festivals in Louisiana - it would be difficult to find a weekend in the year when someone somewhere isn't celebrating something. I've often said that the only reason St. Patrick's Day is celebrated in New Orleans is because they just can't make it through Lent without having a parade to celebrate something. Many of those festivals celebrate food: dishes, ingredients, and occasions for eating them. There's the rice festival, the shrimp festival, the crawfish festival... The list could go on and on. The earliest beginnings of Mardi Gras happened in small towns through the countryside of Louisiana when the men of the towns would dress in costumes and ride on horseback from house to house soliciting ingredients for a big gumbo. One of the favorite things to do was to set a live chicken lose into the yard and make the masked men chase it around. At the end of the day, the town would come together in the church yard to combine all of the ingredients in a giant gumbo that would be shared by everyone in the town.

There were some things that didn't surprise me when I moved north. I knew that I wouldn't be able to buy some of my favorite brands here. I knew I wouldn't find Tony Chachere's (for those of you not immersed in Cajun French pronunciation styles: this one's pronounced SA-SHUHR-EE) - my very favorite Cajun spice blend. I knew that I wouldn't be able to find Community Coffee - the very delicious, almost painfully strong, official state coffee of Louisiana (incidentally, Louisiana is the only state that has an "official state coffee").

But I was surprised in other ways. It was hard to find smoked sausage! I could have all the German and Polish sausages I could stand (though, admittedly, my tolerance for these is rather low), but nothing that would work for gumbo or red beans and rice. I did eventually find one version of andouille sausage in my local grocery store. And it's okay. It's better than nothing. But it is made in California. It's a little tough, and pretty bland. But like I said, it's better than nothing.

I also was surprised that I didn't have a lot of choice in rice. In Louisiana, the rice section of the grocery store offers lots of options. There are different grain types, different brands, etc. In New Jersey, I'm lucky to find two choices. Often, only one!

So the map at the top of this post is another example of this culinary culture shock.

I grew up referring to all "sodas" as "coke". You go into a restaurant, ask for a "coke", and the server replies, "What kind?" You may say Coke, but you also may say Dr. Pepper, or Sprite, or anything else. You may even say Pepsi (though the server would surely find this odd, because no self-respecting Southerner WANTS Pepsi)! But it was all "coke".

I admit, I always thought this was a bit odd, but it was what we did.

So, thanks to my friend Nina for bringing this to my attention. It may not be a particularly deep reflection, but I think it does offer another level of insight into the profound differences between these vastly different worlds that I've now inhabited.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Big Doings in Mayberry...

My town was featured in an article in the New York Times. It's a little silly, I know, but I'm kind of excited about it. I've lived here nearly four years. In one more year, I will have lived here longer than I've ever lived anywhere in my life.

In an earlier post, I talked about home. There are certainly a lot of days when this place is starting to feel like home, too. I've made a lot of very significant friendships. I can drive through this maze of streets that were built before anyone was thinking about urban planning without even getting lost. And now, when I read about this odd little unknown town of 16,000 people in the New York Times, I find myself kind of proud.

Funny, huh?

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Letters to Lambeth

A lot of blogs and sites around the internet are now promoting this, so I doubt I'm offering this as "news" to my readership, but I do want to add my two cents in encouraging you to participate. Lambeth Conferences and other official bodies of the Anglican Communion have been for many years encouraging a "listening process" through which the stories of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Anglicans could be told, heard, reflected on, and hopefully through which the Anglican part of the Body of Christ could know more fully the humanity of its GLBT members.

The call for the listening process has, for too long, gone unheeded. This organization is attempting to rectify that failing.

So check them out. If you are able, offer a few words of testimony about the role of GLBT people in the Anglican Communion and as people of Christian faith in general.

Though much of the Anglican Communion may continue to resist the call to a "listening process", we can continue to demand to be heard. It can't hurt, and may even help!

Sunday, June 01, 2008

A word from one of my favorite philosophers

Once again, Ziggy has hit the nail on the head...

Perhaps these theological discussion groups that are popping up at "St. Arbucks" locations all around are on to something!


So... I've been feeling a little nostalgic for "home" here lately. I put home in quotes, because it's always been a bit of a fluid concept for me. Growing up in an intinerate clergy household, I tended not to associate "home" with particular locations, but with that place (or more likely in my experience - those places) that gives you comfort. I learned the Robert Frost quote early: "home is where when you have to go, they have to take you."

A few of the "homes" I've had:

My grandparents' homes. Our extended family was very close. I always spent a few weeks each summer visiting my grandparents' homes. Now all of my grandparents have "gone on to their great reward" (as they say in my "homeland"), but those towns, and even those houses still feel a little like home.

Wherever my family lived. Like I said, we moved a lot, so I don't associate home with any particular house we lived in. People always ask if that life was "hard". I suppose it was, to some extent, but it also taught me to appreciate my family - our relationships. Don't get me wrong, we're as screwed up as any other family, but there were significant times in our history when we were all we had. We'd moved to a new town, didn't know anyone, were starting our lives over. If we didn't make it a point to appreciate each other, we would have been alone. So, somewhere I just learned to love them and to make them my home, even in spite of our messed-up ways and eccentricities. It's a pretty good gift.

But now, the issue is that as a "nuclear" family, we've gone our separate ways. Mom and Dad have set up a new life for themselves in Tennessee - away from our Louisiana roots. My brother is married and has a son with two more dear little ones on the way. His family lives in Mississippi. And here I am, as my nephew says, "WAAAAAAY up in New Jersey!"

So where does that leave home? Even more elusive than before, that's where.

The long and short of it is, I've been "WAAAAAAY up in New Jersey!" for a while without connecting with home through any more than telephone calls and emails. Of course, New Jersey is a kind of home now, too. And I love it here. I love the life that I've formed for myself and the relationships that I've made. But I still find myself longing, from time to time, for that home that I can't make alone.

So I've come up with some strategies for finding home. Certainly friends and newfound loved ones help, a lot. But tonight's strategy is a movie. "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?". Of course my vision of the South is different from that which is depicted in 1930s Mississippi, but honestly, not by much. While the "new South" has changed a lot, some of the more quaint traditions have endured. We even tend to still sing some of the same music.

That's Sunday night for you. Finding home. The movie has ended, and honestly, I'm a little more contented about it than I was a couple of hours ago. It's good to go home.