Labels

Over the past couple of years, I’ve become increasingly weary of labels.

A few of the most wearisome: progressive, conservative, liberal, evangelical…even Christian.

I’m weary of the way they’re used both by the camps claiming them and by the camps using them to label the “other.”

Frankly, I hear a lot of self-described progressives talking about “those evangelicals” or “those Christians” or “those conservatives” with a not-so-subtle leer.

And, to be fair, I hear proudly-evangelical affiliated folks trash-talking those progressives and those liberals. You know what I’m referring to, it’s bumper sticker hate speech. Last night, I was following this on the highway: Conservatives give birth. Liberals abort their babies. Conservatives can’t lose.

I’m pretty sick of the hate mongering…from both sides. I couldn’t be less interested in drawing distinctions between Republican and Democratic Christians – conservatives and liberals – evangelicals and mainline folks. In fact, I think the stereotyping and language focusing on difference has to stop if Christianity is to have any relevance in our historic moment.

***

A friend of mine recently wrote an article for an online magazine about the church needing to learn to speak the language of liberals. This friend used the Pentecost event to remind us that the church was born in a flurry of diversity. When the Spirit descended on Jerusalem in Acts 2 – she descended on a great diversity of people, culture, tribes, and language groups. The church was given the gift of speaking in each others languages for the express purpose of creating unity. It’s a beautiful, mesmerizing, thought-provoking piece of the biblical witness.

The point of the article: the church is a polygot organism. It is not for one kind of person or group of people – the gospel is only active if it is radically embracing the whole world.

Interwoven in the piece was a How-To list. I read through “how to talk to liberals” sighing. It was kindof a caricature of who liberals are and what they care about. And it (albeit subtly) seems to suggest that liberals might not be Christians.

Blergh.

And on the other side … I recently walked into a conversation between some of my “liberal” friends discussing step-by-step strategies for (1) engaging “conservative Christians” and (2) explaining to them how wrong they are about everything from theology to politics.

Again … blergh.

The thing about the Pentecost event is no one was learning a language for the express purpose of trying to convert another Christ-follower to his or her understanding of the Way. It just happened. People were genuinely overcome by the Spirit with the ability to hear and understand and accept each other.

I could care less about learning how to engage the NPR-listening, fair-trade coffee-drinking liberal OR the pro-life, WWJD bracelet-bearing conservative and manipulating them into listening to my personal take on the Gospel.

I’m interested in knowing people beyond ill-fitting stereotypes designed to keep humanity at odds, in listening to what we hold in common, in practicing civility in conversation, and in praying that the Spirit will transform us – beyond political affiliation and beyond culture wars – into the people of God. The commonwealth of heaven on earth.

Weathering the Storm

I’m embarking on a two-month journey of preaching solely to children. I am simultaneously intrigued by and terrified of this exercise.

Almost immediately I’ve found that Scripture becomes a lot clearer when the recipients of the Word are children. I lose any desire I have to be esoteric and instead my guiding question is: How will this affect them? What about this is relevant to their lives and the way they understand God?

Psalm 29 is the focus text for next Sunday – The Voice of God in a Great Storm.

If I was preaching this text to adults, I would be tempted to say – yeah. I get it. It’s about the presence of God – but that’s too simple. What’s underneath it? Can we pick apart the Hebrew? Compare it to other conceptions of God in the Ancient Near Eastern world?

But you know, maybe it’s enough that it’s about the presence of God. For adults and for kids.

Seamus Heaney’s poem, Storm on the Island, comes to mind.

We are prepared: we build our houses squat,

Sink walls in rock and roof them with good slate.

The wizened earth had never troubled us

With hay, so as you can see, there are no stacks

Or stooks that can be lost. Nor are there trees

Which might prove company when it blows full

Blast: you know what I mean – leaves and branches

Can raise a chorus in a gale

So that you can listen to the thing you fear

Forgetting that it pummels your house too.

But there are no trees, no natural shelter.

You might think that the sea is company,

Exploding comfortably down on the cliffs

But no: when it begins, the flung spray hits

The very windows, spits like a tame cat

Turned savage. We just sit tight while wind dives

And strafes invisibly. Space is a salvo.

We are bombarded by the empty air.

Strange, it is a huge nothing that we fear.

During the great storms of my life, all my planning and preparing and fortress building has proven almost useless against the savage wind. Very often, the only thing to do is sit tight. To bear into the storm.

The Scripture reminds us that when we’re in that place and none of our defenses feel very sturdy, the presence of God surrounds us, alongside us as we sit tight together.

 

A Discipline of Words

While I’m still thinking of Seamus Heaney, I’m reminded of his words from “Station Island” …

The main thing is to write

for the joy of it.

I can’t say that I write for the joy of it.

Sometimes, that might be true. But more often, writing has been a task, albeit a task motivated by a deep sense of compulsion that I can barely contain. If there’s joy in it – it comes and goes, with the moons.

Deadlines have always motivated me. A thesis deadline, the omnipresent Sunday sermon deadline, a manuscript due to a publisher …

I’m worried, I guess. Worried that without another deadline, the words will disintegrate. That is, I suppose, why I’ve taken up residence in this virtual space.

What distinguishes a writer? Writer’s write.

It is a discipline for some of us {primarily}, and only secondarily, a joy.

Secretly, I wish I were more like the Irish poet.

Thinking of Seamus Heaney

And it is not particular at all,
Just old truth dawning: there is no next-time-round.

{from Lightenings}

Prayer for a Thursday

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of thy faithful people and kindle in them the fire of thy love.

Send forth thy Spirit and they shall be made and thou shalt renew the face of the Earth,

Amen.

{Archbishop Desmond Tutu}

Praying for Sparkle

There are periods in each of our lives when we just can’t catch a break.

Weeks and months where everything seems to go wrong all at once: someone we love gets sick; our patience with that annoying co-worker runs out and we do the obvious: lose our filter and say something we should never, ever have said out loud; our inbox is filled with emails about what we did wrong, what we should have done differently, and how we’re failing at whatever it is we’re attempting to do; we’re fighting with our spouse or our kids or our parents.

Those are the weeks that, for me, are exasperated by patterns like: spilling my coffee on myself every morning by tripping over the cat, slamming on the brakes not-soon-enough in tight traffic, someone else eating the leftover brownie I had been saving.for.myself….since.yesterday., running perpetually late to every meeting, appointment, commitment.

I respond with what Truman Capote termed “the mean reds” in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I’m not depressed exactly, but I get scared. Holly Golightly said it this way, “…the blues are because you’re getting fat and maybe it’s been raining too long, you’re just sad that’s all. The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you’re afraid and you don’t know what you’re afraid of.”

The mean reds strike me in those stretches of time when things are piling up and instead of taking care of myself in those moments, I fall into old patterns – I let fear propel me. I put up more and more lines of defense, I strike out at the people I can (the people who love me the most), and I isolate. I’m afraid because I can’t see myself anymore. I’ve begun to believe that I am failing, that who I really am is the person who snaps at her colleagues and walks around in perpetually coffee-stained t-shirts.

You might be better accustomed to welcoming fear than I am. But I have to tell you, I’m just learning how to do this. I suspect if I welcomed fear and asked it questions …

  • why do I think my personhood hinges on this angry person’s frustration with me?
  • is anxiety and depression the best response to my dear one’s illness? is it helpful to either one of us?

… it might not have quite so impressive a grip on me.

My friend Jack told me that when life gets rough, we should surround ourselves with people whose eyes light up when they see us coming. I think that’s the sagest thing I’ve heard in a good while.

The next time fear and the mean reds tighten their grip on us, let’s find the people whose eyes sparkle when they see us. Let’s go to where they are and breathe deeply.  Let’s look for spaces and people who will remind us of who we really are. Amen.

What Kids Need

I’ve been thinking a lot about spirituality in relationship to babies and children and youth these days. In my job I hear a lot of conflicting messages about how to nourish the souls of kids and fledgling adults: entertain them, take them to amusement parks, give them pizza, facilitate playtime, create programs that will entice them with hipness, be their bestie! As a minister, I hear this: escalated work hours, blurred boundaries, endless programs, bored and spiritually impoverished young people. I’m so weary of tactics. And the kids are, too. Here’s what our children and young people want: to be taken seriously, to be respected as human beings capable of spirituality, to be listened to, to be cared well for, to be accepted. No where in that list do I see rock bands, video games, pizza, bouncy houses, or indoor play parks. There are lots and lots of places in the world we can take our kids to be entertained and to consume. I am resistant to the idea that church should be one of them. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “It takes three things to attain a sense of significant being: God, a soul, and a moment.”

I’m not a parent {yet}. But when I am, I want church to be the kind of community my kid attains a sense of significant being in. I want my kid to understand that church is a place to be real in, to explore the human spirit and the Divine, to hear the stories of our tradition and remember that throughout time there have always been creative, compassionate, hopeful people at work in the world. I want my kids to remember that no matter how scary the world seems – no matter how much injustice and violence and chaos exists – there are always people of vision. I want my kid to know they are never alone and that God is embodied in moments when we come together in vision, hope, and creativity. As it turns out, that is exactly what I want church to be for me, too. How can we facilitate those moments for our kids? How can we embody God in song, in story, in play, in art? That, I think, would mean losing the tactics. It would mean paying serious attention to young souls in ways that are mindful of their own intelligence and capacity for spirituality. If you want glitz and a hipster-vibe and noise and hype, I’m not your gal. But if you want something that’s actually relevant and authentic, that’s the ministry I want to pursue with you and with your kids.

The Necessity of Difference

I have a ritual on Sunday mornings as I’m stumbling about the house with a cup of coffee in one hand, trying to gather myself for the day. If there’s no one else at home, my iPhone is in the pocket of my bathrobe, streaming the latest “On Being” podcast at the highest volume it can muster. If people are home and sleeping, I try to remember my headphones …

For a minister, finding “church” is an elusive thing. Sunday mornings in the sanctuary are no longer what they once were, so I seek connection in other ways, other places. My church has become jogging past the blackberry thrush bursting with sweetness, a yoga mat on Friday mornings in a quiet studio, and … Krista Tippett in the early hours of Sunday morning.

Yesterday, the podcast was a re-broadcast from 2011 with Kwame Anthony Appiah, a British-born Ghahian-American whose parent’s marriage inspired the film, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Appiah was speaking of the necessity of difference – how thriving communities cannot be homogeneous monoliths. He was speaking of a wide variety of communities – large communities like social republics and religious affiliations and small communities like neighborhoods and local places of worship.

In partnership with this idea of the necessity of difference, he made a differentiation between conversation and dialogue. I’m certain I don’t have this verbatim (I was stumbling around with my coffee, feeding the cats and trying to brush my teeth while listening) but what I heard him say was that dialogue is something we engage in when there’s something to argue about or when we’re in a situation where there is divisive difference between conversation partners. You don’t think climate change is a real thing? Let’s dialogue about that. You think homosexuality is a sin? I’d love to dialogue about that with you. When we “dialogue” with someone, we have an agenda. Conversation is a different thing. Conversation is located in the seams of knowing someone, of being in relationship. When we have a conversation we ask about the kids, we talk about the weather, how our gardens look this summer. We ask about the health problem we know the neighbor is dealing with, we offer to feed the cats while they’re on vacation. When we engage in conversation – we create relationship and then, maybe, we have dialogue. But because the conversation is our bedrock – we know who Jack and Margot are. They’re not the neighbors with the green lawn in the middle of a dry summer and the SUV with the WWJD bumper sticker. They’re not the people who don’t bother putting out their recycle bin because they’ve thrown everything into the garbage can, they’re Jack and Margot. They’re the couple who had a miscarriage last year. Margot’s 50-something father lives just around the corner and he’s dying of colon cancer. Jack’s daughter Reese is with them every other weekend – she’s 6 and very into skateboarding. Their cat, Carbon, is often my morning companion as I sit on the back porch and he prowls around for the cream I’ve brought out in a little saucer for my coffee.

To be honest, I’m not so interested in dialogue with Jack and Margot. I’m interested in conversation. Maybe someday they’ll ask me what church I’m a minister at or why I compost in my backyard or why my front yard lacks any sign of green. And maybe then (but only maybe) we’ll have a dialogue.

I wonder what would happen if we created relationships through conversation that made civility a real, tangible thing. What would change in our public discourse if the people on the other side of the party line (or at that other church) were no longer “those people” but if they were known. If we cared more about relationship than debate. If we honored our differences as vital and necessary to a thriving republic.

What would happen if you stopped having dialogue and started having conversations?