Those rainbow colors had us all a-muddled last week…
1. I was not elected vice moderator of the Presbyterian General Assembly.
2. I’m home, and very glad to be so.
3. We made some people mad last week.
…Those are in reverse order of importance.
The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) made decisions about marriage and the Middle East that left some of us celebrating, and others of lamenting or downright furious. You can read my take on the marriage decision at TIME.
Temperamentally speaking, Presbyterians are not firebrand folk. We joke about being the Frozen Chosen and doing things “decently and in order.” (That’s from the Bible, by the way.) So it’s a bit uncomfortable for us to be in the news, even if we agree with the decisions made last week.
But as my friend Jan Edmiston reminds us, Faithfulness is Disruptive. And last week, after hours of deliberation, conversation, prayer and discernment, a majority of commissioners decided that the faithful thing was to give pastors and churches the discretion to perform same-sex marriages where they are legal, and to divest from three companies who are profiting from non-peaceful pursuits in the Palestinian territories, in keeping with a long-standing policy of socially-responsible investing.
Some people wonder why we wade into controversial issues at all. Churches will leave the denomination, they say. Our long-standing partnerships with Jewish congregations are in serious jeopardy.
Yes, and yes. Here’s the hard thing though, for big-tent, good-natured Presbyterians: that doesn’t make the decisions wrong.
If Jesus were really the affirming nice guy we often insist on imagining, should he not have been able to stay out of trouble? What incited people to call him such appalling names? Why would following him wreck families? How did he end up on a cross? The answer is not that his opponents had strange and unsettling ideas, but that he did. Contrary to popular opinion and bestselling books, not everything the follower of Jesus needs to know can be learned in kindergarten. Kingdom work, it turns out, is more controversial and subversive than conventional kindness.
Not every controversial action is of the gospel, of course. We may have gotten it wrong last week. But the potential for controversy is not a reason to do nothing.
When you’re talking about Jesus, subversiveness is baked right in.
That said, conventional kindness is a welcome overlay to all this. So be kind, folks; everyone is fighting a great battle.
John Lewis was interviewed by Krista Tippett recently about the use of non-violence during the civil rights era. The whole conversation is transcendent. He talks about being beaten during one of the protests and how he was absolutely certain he was going to die.
This exchange has remained in my mind:
Rep. John Lewis: I wanted to believe, and I did believe, that things would get better. But later I discovered, I guess, that you have to have this sense of faith that what you’re moving toward is already done. It’s already happened.
Ms. Tippett: Say some more about that.
Rep. Lewis: It’s the power to believe that you can see, that you visualize, that sense of community, that sense of family, that sense of one house.
Ms. Tippett: And live as if?
Rep. Lewis: And you live that you’re already there, that you’re already in that community, part of that sense of one family, one house.
We see this idea lurking in many places, some profound, some not.
“Be the change you wish to see.”
“Fake it ’til you make it.”
It’s also basic Christian eschatology. I can’t find the reference now, but Desmond Tutu talks about preaching against apartheid during the height of that evil system. The police rimmed the arena with guns and intimidation as he spoke. At one point he turned his attention to them and invited them to put down their guns.
Come and join us, he said, because you have already lost. We have won.
I sense this dynamic at work in the fight for marriage equality. We have reached a tipping point, and there is something relentlessly inevitable about it now. It is not a question of if, but when. This doesn’t mean that marriage equality supporters are done with their work. On the contrary, “living as if” gives a sense of energy and urgency to the work. Even many people opposed to gay marriage understand that sooner or later, it will be the law of the land.
(Of course, the inevitability of something doesn’t automatically make it right or good. But I believe the ability to marry the person you love regardless of gender is both a right and a good.)
I wonder where you’ve seen this dynamic John Lewis describes. I wonder when and how you live toward this in your own life.
A lit class in 1961 tries to understand “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” They, um, miss the mark. O’Connor responds in part:
The meaning of a story should go on expanding for the reader the more he thinks about it, but meaning cannot be captured in an interpretation. If teachers are in the habit of approaching a story as if it were a research problem for which any answer is believable so long as it is not obvious, then I think students will never learn to enjoy fiction. Too much interpretation is certainly worse than too little, and where feeling for a story is absent, theory will not supply it.
My tone is not meant to be obnoxious. I am in a state of shock.
On Rick Warren’s “Daniel Plan” for fitness, which he cribs from the pages of an apocalyptic text:
I can’t begrudge anyone whatever motivation they need to live a healthier life, and Warren deserves respect for using some of his enormous cultural capital to fight obesity—especially now that biblical values are suddenly synonymous with consuming fried chicken sandwiches and waffle fries. But I am in awe at the superhuman degree of willful blindness it must take to read a profound story of conquest and resistance, of identity and assimilation, and discover, at the bottom of it all… a diet plan!
A story, sacred or secular, is a test of our empathy: an invitation to enter into the trials and hopes of a stranger. And it takes a remarkable self-centeredness to deliberately reject that invitation, to mine that story for anything that helps us grow our portfolios or shrink our waistlines, and throw away the husk of the human at its heart once we’ve sucked out all we can use. We can read selfishly just as we can act selfishly.
At 40, Julie Sanders is a mother of three from Portland, Ore. But when she was 16, Sanders belonged to a white supremacist group — and one night in 1988, she witnessed a murder. Since then, she’s kept the event a secret from most of her friends and family.
She has broken the cycle and raised thoughtful and courageous children—one of them is defending a cross-dresser in his high school who’s being hassled—but it doesn’t feel like enough:
“But, I just still feel like not a good person,” she says. “And I don’t forgive myself.”
Sanders recently completed a degree in social work. She plans to work with kids who are at risk of joining hate groups.
How “much” atonement is enough? Is it even fruitful to think that way?
These are closeup portraits of drag queens with half of the face made up and half au naturel. Says the artist: ‘My intention with Half-Drag is to capture both the male and the alter-ego female side of these subjects in one image.’
What is feminine? Masculine? Beautiful? Where does authenticity originate and how does it find expression? These are some of the questions that come to mind as I look at these.
Not to mention that the images are amazing. The makeup itself is artistry.
The first two weeks were a zen-like blur. I’ve never felt so calm and happy in my life. Never. And then I started actually getting stuff done. I bought copies of Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, and Aeschylus. I was writing at an amazing pace. For the first time ever I seemed to be outpacing my editors.
Without the internet, everything seemed new to me. Every untweeted observation of daily life was more sacred. Every conversation was face to face or a phone call, and filled with a hundred fresh nuances. The air smelled better. My sentences seemed less convoluted. I lost a bit of weight.
Three months later, I don’t miss the internet at all. It doesn’t factor into my daily life. I don’t say to myself, “ugh, I wish I could just use the internet to do that.” It’s more like it doesn’t exist for me. I still say “ugh, I have to do that” — it’s just not the internet’s fault.
But now that not having internet is no longer new, just normal, the zen calm is gone. I don’t wake with the sunrise while chirping birds pull back the covers. I still have a job. I feel pressure and stress and frustration. I get lonely and bored. My articles aren’t always submitted on time. Sometimes my sentences aren’t good.
I’m just stock Paul Miller. No more Not-Using-The-Internet custom skin; I’m just myself. And it’s not all sunshine and epiphanies.
This is a long but clear excursus on how we decide what’s fair and what’s not as a society, for the purposes of, say, designing a tax policy. It’s hard to figure out where to excerpt, so read the whole thing, but here’s the crux: the veil of ignorance (a traditional way of evaluating what’s fair) has been replaced in many quarters by a “veil of opulence.” Chopping mercilessly at the article:
The idea behind the veil of ignorance is relatively simple: to force us to think outside of our parochial personal concerns in order that we consider others. What Rawls saw clearly is that it is not easy for us to put ourselves in the position of others. We tend to think about others always from our own personal vantage; we tend to equate another person’s predicament with our own. Imagining what it must be like to be poor, for instance, we import presumptions about available resources, talents and opportunities — encouraging, say, the homeless to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and to just get a job, any job, as if getting a job is as simple as filling out an application. Meanwhile, we give little thought to how challenging this can be for those who suffer from chronic illnesses or disabling conditions. What Rawls also saw clearly was that other classic principles of justice, like the golden rule or mutual benevolence, are subject to distortion precisely because we tend to do this.
Nowadays, the veil of ignorance is challenged by a powerful but ancient contender: the veil of opulence. While no serious political philosopher actually defends such a device — the term is my own — the veil of opulence runs thick in our political discourse. Where the veil of ignorance offers a test for fairness from an impersonal, universal point of view — “What system would I want if I had no idea who I was going to be, or what talents and resources I was going to have?” — the veil of opulence offers a test for fairness from the first-person, partial point of view: “What system would I want if I were so-and-so?” These two doctrines of fairness — the universal view and the first-person view — are both compelling in their own way, but only one of them offers moral clarity impartial enough to guide our policy decisions.
Those who don the veil of opulence may imagine themselves to be fantastically wealthy movie stars or extremely successful business entrepreneurs. They vote and set policies according to this fantasy. “If I were such and such a wealthy person,” they ask, “how would I feel about giving X percentage of my income, or Y real dollars per year, to pay for services that I will never see nor use?” We see this repeatedly in our tax policy discussions…
…The veil of opulence assumes that the playing field is level, that all gains are fairly gotten, that there is no cosmic adversity. In doing so, it is partial to the fortunate — for fortune here is entirely earned or deserved. The veil of ignorance, on the other hand, introduces the possibility that one might fall on hard luck or that one is not born into luck. It never once closes out the possibility that that same person might take steps to overcome that bad luck. In this respect, it is not partial to the fortunate but impartial to all. Some will win by merit, some will win by lottery. Others will lose by laziness, while still others will lose because the world has thrown them some unfathomably awful disease or some catastrophically terrible car accident. It is an illusion of prosperity to believe that each of us deserves everything we get.
Interesting example in the NFL draft.
One final link: I preached some time ago about Dan Savage and Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage sitting at table together. Here is the video of that debate. I haven’t watched any of it yet and caveat emptor because Dan is famously salty in his speech. (Though I should also warn about Brian Brown, since many people find his perspective much more offensive than an errant F-bomb.)
MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
June 3, 2012
Why We Worship
IN THIS CORNER! Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage, a group dedicated to fighting same-sex marriage and protecting what they call “traditional marriage.” Brian is a Catholic father of seven who has made it his life’s work to fight what his group’s website calls the “threat to marriage.”
AND IN THE OTHER CORNER! Dan Savage, a writer and host of a radio show about love and relationships. Dan is a vigorous supporter of gay rights and marriage equality. He lives with his partner Terry and their son in Seattle, clear across the country from Brian Brown. Dan and Terry began the “It Gets Better” project after a recent spate of suicides by gay teens who were the victims of bullying. The videos tell the teens to hang in there, that life is worth living, that high school can be brutal and nasty but that it gets better. He’s also a colorful, some might say caustic, speaker and writer, and believe me when I tell you he is not everyone’s cup of tea. You have been warned, so don’t write me letters.
Brian Brown recently challenged Savage to a debate over the Bible and marriage. These are two men who are used to giving full-throated defenses of their position but they have never faced each other. “You name the time and the place,” Brown wrote on his website, throwing down the gauntlet.
Dan Savage accepted the invitation to debate. But there will be no crowd of supporters, booing and cheering each side. There will be no grandstanding speeches, no protesters on the sidewalk outside shouting each other down. Dan Savage has invited Brian Brown and his wife into Dan’s home, to meet his family and have dinner and debate on marriage equality. They will meet not onstage, but at table.
And Brian Brown has accepted.
I’m trying to imagine these two, pitching this event to their spouses.
Brian Brown: So, honey? You know that potty-mouthed gay man who’s been so critical of the pope and represents everything we’re fighting against? We’re going to his house.
And Dan Savage: You know that guy on TV who says that our relationship is a threat to families and dangerous for children and society in general? Well… guess who’s coming to dinner!
Now for any of you shifting uncomfortably on those nice pew cushions, this is not a sermon about gay marriage. We may talk about it at some point, at a time when there’s the opportunity for back and forth, but it’s not something I would ever spring on you.
This is a sermon about the Eucharist—the Lord’s Supper.
It’s a sermon about communion. It’s a sermon about what can happen when people sit around a table together.
In the words of Dan Savage, as he wrote about this invitation: “[In doing this] I… acknowledge Brown’s humanity by extending my hospitality, and he… acknowledges mine by accepting my hospitality.”
Now let’s not lose our heads here.
Do I think there’s any chance that either of these guys is going to change his mind on gay marriage? No.
But will the sharp edges of this debate soften just the tiniest bit? Possibly.
Will Dan greet Brian with a basin of water and oil for anointing his head? Doubtful, though I’m sure that would be a big hit on YouTube.
Might they come away from this experience changed a little? Possibly. I certainly hope so. In fact, I’ve staked my life on it.
Nine years ago this weekend, I was ordained a Minister of Word and Sacrament. I’ve staked my life on the conviction that the sacraments have gracious, mysterious power in our lives, that we learn at this table what it means to be community at every table.
Whenever we share a meal and share our lives—
whether this meal [at the communion table] or a potluck with the church
or a picnic with our families or even an uncomfortable dinner between two political adversaries,
the Spirit of Christ is present and there is hope for transformation.
The table is intimate. The table is up close. There’s nowhere to hide.
There’s no podium to clutch for support.
No talking points on index cards, nothing but each of us, all of us,
living in these frail bodies that need nutrition and hydration in order to survive,
these bodies that are fueled, not just by calories
but by love, dignity, community, reverence.
We bring those needs to the table, like it or not, which is what makes Dan Savage’s invitation, and Brian Brown’s acceptance, such a resonant image for our rancorous times.
In the Greek language, the word for host and the word for guest are one and the same. Which is appropriate: in true hospitality, there is a mutuality. There’s nobody in charge at a table. The host is just as vulnerable as the guest, in a sense, because even the most gifted host cannot control what will happen when you get people together, elbow to elbow.
The table is a powerful place. I think this is why some of us struggle with relatives who get nasty over Thanksgiving dinner. People ask me how to respond when Aunt Edna goes off on one of her tirades… and there is no one-size-fits-all answer to that. Except to say that part of what makes it so hard is that people who make racist comments, or who question the other political party’s patriotism, or who demonize “those people” are breaking the rules of the table and turning the meal into something it’s not.
It’s not that you can’t have disagreements over a meal. We will come to this table in a few moments and I know that the people in this room are split down the middle on gay marriage, give or take, just like the country is; pick any other issue in this election year and it will be a similar story. But when we climb up on a table, any table, and make it into a soapbox, when we show contempt for the very person who’s passing us the squash casserole, when we approach the meal from a posture of judgment and power rather than mutual sharing and good faith—then table fellowship is lost.
“Jesus of Nazareth, come to my home to eat.” Simon the Pharisee invites Jesus to dine with him. But he does not extend hospitality. He does not treat Jesus as an honored guest, nor like a guest at all. He dispenses with all the usual customs of hospitality at the time: a kiss of peace, a washing of the feet. Jesus is an inconvenient afterthought. Just like our boorish uncle Bob who won’t stop yammering about the President’s birth certificate, or those evil Republicans, Simon turns the table into a place to assert himself. And Jesus calls him on it: These practices matter, Simon. They aren’t just niceties, they show care and respect. And you blew it. And Simon is the one who’s poorer for it.
By contrast, Jesus receives hospitality from a woman who isn’t even sitting at the table. She does all the work of the host, but she does it messy. She does it at a slant. She doesn’t wash his feet with a basin, she bathes them in tears. She doesn’t kiss him hello at the door, she bends over his tear-stained feet and kisses his feet. She’s sloppy and embarrassing and Jesus adores her for it. She is a sinner, we’re told, but she shows great love. Or perhaps I should say, she is a sinner AND she shows great love.
It’s the “and” that gives us hope. Because we, too, are broken. We’re as broken as Simon:
so capable, so influential, so learned—
but so stingy, so small, so unable to let go of being right that we can’t enter the joy of real relationship.
And we’re as broken as the woman, we feel like outsiders in our heart of hearts (oh if people only knew what I was really like), but so frantic for something real that we will trip all over ourselves in a grand sloppy display of pure desperation and need.
Part of the inspiration for this series on worship is to explore the theology behind our practices of worship. I get questions all the time about why we do certain things at IPC. Why do we allow children to come to the table before they have been confirmed? Why do we move the passing of the peace on communion Sundays—from early in the service to right before the invitation to the table? Why don’t we cut the bread ahead of time so everyone gets their own piece, which would be more sanitary?
Those are all good questions. And there are all kinds of theological dimensions to them, but it turns out that really, all of those questions have the same basic answer. We do those things because we are in this together. Because we need the love of Jesus that is offered at this table; we need it as individuals and as a community. And if that’s true, then nobody is excluded from the table of God: not children, not Pharisees, not women with alabaster jars.
We’re in this together, so when we come to this table, we come to be reconciled, and sharing the peace with one another allows that reconciliation to take place.
We’re in this together, and being in a community means we share a common loaf. Communion is not a private affair, between us and God, it’s a big unholy family-style meal of bread touched by others’ hands and a cup with little crumbs of bread floating in it, and Jesus says you people are a mess, I love it and I love you.
“She has shown great love.”
So does God show great love for all at this table.
So may we all show great love.
Image: Dan Savage talking about the It Gets Better project on YouTube.
It’s a very interesting story because it blends the personal with the corporate and the political:
“I understand that your company donated $250,000 or so to the effort to ban the marriage amendment,” read one [critical e-mail]. “I am very concerned that with an increased visibility and acceptance of the gay and lesbian lifestyle, one of my children, who would have grown up and been happily married to a husband, could be tempted to the lesbian lifestyle.”
I support people putting their money where their mouth is. I’ve bought from Replacements Limited several times over the years. I wish I hadn’t already completed the set of china we got for our wedding.
You can look forward to a host of new titles by writers who’ll keep you riveted without insulting your intelligence, whether you prefer thrillers, literary fiction, biographies or page turners in just about any genre. Books are among the joys that make summers memorable, and this year we’re spoiled for choice.
Every summer I make an informal pact with myself not to read any church administration, organizational leadership or theology books for the summer. Maybe I’ll check some of these out.
We reject the premise that all babies are cute and worthy of being surrounded by fluffy, pastel, scented debris. We reject the serving up of people in the early stages of cognitive development in giant teacups, unable to comprehend the tropes they are helping to propagate, specifically regarding colonialism and unsupervised use of diuretics. We reject the reverse anthropomorphism of humans into bumble bees, especially in so anatomically simplistic a manner, without so much as a solid thorax to recommend the likeness.
We’re going on 18 years and yes, I’d agree with every one of these on one level or another.
Marriage is not conditional. It is permanent. Your husband will be with you until you die. That is a given. It sounds obvious, but really making it a given is hard. You tend to think in “ifs” and “thens” even when you’ve publicly committed to forever. If he does this, I won’t tolerate it. If I do this, he’ll leave me. If I get fat. If I change jobs. If he says mean things. If he doesn’t pay more attention. It’s natural, especially in the beginning of your marriage, to keep those doubts in your head. But the sooner you can let go of the idea that marriage is temporary — and will end if certain awful conditions are met — the sooner you will let go of all kinds of conflict and stress. Yes, you may find yourself in a horrible situation where it’s absolutely necessary to get a divorce. But going into it with divorce in the back of your mind, even in the way way way back of your mind, is going to cause a lot of unnecessary angst. Accept that you’re going to stay with him. He’s going to stay with you. Inhabit that and figure out how to make THAT work, instead of living with the “what if”s and “in case of’s.”
Loved this article. The Freakonomics podcast had a feature several months ago exploring whether hitchhiking is as dangerous as we think. Conclusion: probably not. Stil, I will live vicariously through John Waters, methinks.
May the highways of your life be full of joy and surprise this weekend.