Tuesday, July 24, 2018

The Biggest Challenge

 At a parish church where I was celebrating the Holy Eucharist and preaching this week I had a conversation between liturgies with a church member in a position of leadership.  The conversation was kicked up by his response to my sermon.  I had entitled it “Lifesaving Skills,” and had based it upon a passage from the Letter to the Ephesians in which the writer asserts that Jesus broke down the “dividing wall of hostility” between Jew and Gentile by reconciling both in his body through the cross.  The part of it that seemed to hook my interlocutor was an old metaphor that I used that not so subtly describes the church as a lifesaving station that devolved into a series of exclusive clubs along a perilous seashore.  Theodore O. Wedel wrote a piece in 1953 in which he developed that rather elaborate metaphor.  Howard Clinebell used it in his first chapter in a book read by generations of seminarians, Basic Types of Pastoral Care and Counseling.  In describing a lifesaving station that metamorphoses from a crude but effective response organism into a club that ultimately disavows the purpose of its existence—saving lives—Wedel’s metaphor stings anyone who is the least bit aware of the Church’s perennial tendency to forsake its mission in favor of turning itself into a cozy but largely irrelevant in-group unconcerned with others besides itself. 

The point of my sermon was to awaken (perhaps, I hoped) my hearers to a fresh awareness that the purpose of the Church is actually to create a humanity modeled on who Jesus was (or is, if you believe he lives) and what Jesus did, namely obliterate the divisions of all sorts with which human beings seem enchanted.  Now that I find myself not in the same congregation week after week but rather in a series of different places—maybe a dozen or more different congregations in a year’s time—I notice a recurrent theme in my thought and preaching. It is the incarnational notion that God actually makes a dwelling in human beings.  In a very real sense, human beings are just one of the myriad phenomena on earth or indeed in the universe, each and all of which are manifestations of that great creative force that brings all things into being and makes itself known in every atom and molecule, string and quark that inhabits space.  The thing about us humans that makes us special, if anything does, is that our peculiar brand of consciousness (if we can call ourselves a conscious species) is the universe reflecting on itself.  I don’t know, of course, whether we are the only instance of such reflection in all the galaxies.  I suspect not: we might in fact not be special at all.  But in our limited earthly experience it appears that we alone among creatures have evolved to reflect. Hence the quintessential thing that humans have developed is the art of storytelling in its multifarious forms as a means of transmitting survival information.  We humans tell and share stories in word, art, music, games, play, and so on, as our way of reflecting on the reality—ourselves and our context—that we are constantly perceiving. 

The conversation got me thinking more about the gap between my vision and the reality of the church I see.  In the first place, I don’t see the church as having an answer or an approach or a template for living in the world that is superior to anybody else’s.  The question for me is not whether it is superior or whether it is unique, but whether the fundamental core of the Christian reality works at all.  If Chesterton was right in his quip that the Christian vision has not been tried and found wanting but rather has been found difficult and never tried, then it follows that we don’t actually know whether it works or not. I’m not talking about whether some things that Christians believe and practice work for them.  I’m talking about whether this notion of being a new humanity embodying a reconciling love is something that can really be done, and, if done, effective in making this a better world at the very least—possibly even transforming it radically. 

St. Francis of Assisi: 
the most admired and least emulated
of them all
On my more hopeful days I ponder the story of great examples of Christian faith, such as St. Francis of Assisi, St. Columba, St. Cuthbert, Mother Teresa, the Little Sisters of the Poor, Desmond Tutu, Oscar Romero, St. Xenia of Petersburg, and I see a cloud of witnesses that together say, “Yes!  It can be done.  It works.” On other days I wonder why I can come up with relatively few people who seem actually to have followed Jesus in his radical renunciation of tribalism, in criticizing his own tradition, in growing personally to the point of seeing that there need be no barrier between Jew and Gentile, male and female, barbarian or Greek, but that all are children of the Parent of the Universe. 

Frankly, what I find thoroughly disturbing is that, for the most part, the Church in America, while certainly praiseworthy for a number of things, seems so timid and tepid when it comes to confronting issues that really matter.  Most of the time when somebody makes an assertion like that it seems to me that they think there is a serious shortage in works of justice.  I would agree.  But I think that there are other equally serious ways in which the churches constantly back away from addressing the real stuff of people’s lives. Whether we do what we can or not about it, we’ll talk forever about economic justice, racial justice, doing away with gender discrimination and homophobia.  But when it comes to talking about our bodies, especially our sexual lives, the Church blushes, stammers, and runs the other way.  We stick a naked man on a cross in front of congregations implicitly suggesting that he in that state is the central image of humanity in its most godly form, and yet we get hysterical if somebody is sunbathing at a nude beach a few miles away.  And now we have an even less tenable situation with a host of “Christian” people supporting policies that are rife with corruption, packaged in lies, and unabashedly designed to oppress the most vulnerable among us.  White evangelicals are at latest count in support of Trump administration policies to the tune of 80% in some cases.  And the narrative that people are using to justify themselves is that Trump is delivering on appointing anti-abortion judges to the Supreme Court.  For the record, I find abortion as a form of birth control a horrendous choice, but that is not the point. When did we ever move so far into moral idolatry that a position against aborting fetuses overrides common human decency to  children who happen through no fault of their own to show up in America with their parents in many cases fleeing the economic oppression that US companies have been instrumental in creating and perpetuating?Apparently no amount of raising that issue is sufficient to dislodge white evangelicals from their support of a President who professedly and openly spurns the very core tenets of personal morality that they themselves espouse and teach. 

I could go on, working myself into yet another round of head-scratching impatience and depressive exasperation.  But to come back to the central point, there is nothing about Jesus that suggests support for hostility towards the poor, the wretched, the vulnerable. Nor is there a whit of evidence that he himself bedded down with political regimes of any sort. 

On a purely personal level, I continue to believe, or maybe it’s more that I continue to hope, that the Christian vision of a new humanity might actually catch on.  Surely there are people who are in perhaps increasing numbers signing on to that hope, sharing that dream.  At the end of the day I’m left with just myself.  I don’t know that I can give any account of myself at all, or whether I could pass even my low-bar test of Christian authenticity.  I surely don’t see myself as a model, an exemplar of the very thing I believe.  I share St. Francis’s name, but there the similarity ends, I fear. The small piece of transformation that I’ve claimed as mine to hold on to is a re-visioning of the place of the body in the scheme of redemption.  I think there is no place at all where God is not, and that includes everything on, in, or pertaining to the human body.  And as for being alone at the end of the day, that is only true in one sense.  I know that I am a part of all I have met and that all and sundry in the universe is a part of me. 
Reconciling enemies, creating a new humanity

Maybe the thing that really hooks me into the vision of a new humanity is that the Love of God, the love of neighbor, and the love of self are all part and parcel of the one love that sustains everything.  Thus, connected, I can enter into solitude knowing that solitude is only a different mode, a less obvious mode, of community.  Everything is connected.  And so everything is to be loved and accepted, even the people and the things that we find most repellent.

Even Trump and his followers.

Even Putin and his country’s efforts to sabatoge American democracy.

This thing of being a new humanity is more challenging than I’d bargained for.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2018

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