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Monday, May 26, 2014

Stinky flowers

"Poppies! Poppies will make them....um...nicer!"
My friend Alan Hommerding often uses a particular phrase to alert his readers that there's a quality about what he's about to write that applies painfully to himself and he knows it. His phrase is, "Sound of glass house shattering," or some variation on that. We tend to be bothered, and respond to, bad behavior in other people because it reminds us of how we ourselves act. We see the negative side of our personalities in the light of their behavior. So I'm going to start of with his warning: "Sound of glass house shattering." I feel like I need to say something about the quality of the conversation, particularly among Christians about the state of the Christianity and the church, knowing full well that i have been as guilty as anyone in this area at different times in my life. I'm trying to do better now, but my frustration is always just under the surface. So here we go.

Here's something that bothers me a lot: good people, friends of mine who ought to be allies of one another in the work of making a better world, using abusive language, name-calling, projecting dark motivation, and making judgments of hypocrisy and damnation on other Christians who (in their estimation) do un-Christian things. It feels like we've taken a page out of American political discourse, complete with red-faced bluster, blue language, and purple prose, and applied it within a community that, for all its differences, is supposed to be bound by a commandment to "love one another the way that I have loved you," and to "love your enemies, and do good to those who hate you." Worse, we've come to see some of our own family in Christ as the enemy.

This is not to say that there aren't real divisions in the church, that real injustices aren't visited upon real people in the name of theology and morality, upon the very people who are most vulnerable to attack, already ostracized (like LGBT people) or marginalized (like the divorced and remarried) or outside the power structure (like the sisters represented by the LCWR). It's just that the way we are supposed to treat one another, speak about each other, is supposed to be governed by the law of charity and not by the kind of innuendo and character assassination one ordinarily associates with Bill Maher and Ann Coulter than with Christ.

The thing is, screeds and vituperation are never going to help. People can be rude, arrogant, stupid, brusque, full of themselves, puffed up, and frail in all kinds of annoying ways, and we (I) tend to recognize it in others because we (I) recognize it in ourselves. I cringe inside when I think of the things I've said to people arrogantly as though I were someone with some kind of corner on the truth market, like I were some kind of prophet of the Most High and they were all ignorant Pharisees blocking the work of the kingdom. I've ripped fellow musicians new ones for their perceived arrogance about the superiority of their playing, or their style of music, or for their disdain for the Second Vatican Council, or full, conscious, active participation, yada yada yada.

Let me tell you, I think all that is important, I really do. I think that a lot of Christians are dead wrong about a lot of things. But....do you know what I'm going to say? I keep reminding myself that being right isn't the big thing: loving is. If God could put aside godliness to become like us, then being right doesn't mean s**t, if you take my meaning. This Church, this ekklesia, this community of the called-out, better learn to love each other, better learn to be a big tent, or we're just blowing hot boring air. And even the pagans do that, and do it better than we do.
If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing.
If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, (love) is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails. If there are prophecies, they will be brought to nothing; if tongues, they will cease; if knowledge, it will be brought to nothing.
For we know partially and we prophesy partially, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.

Mao Tse-Tung reportedly said, "let a thousand flowers bloom," referring to many ideas coming to China in the Cultural Revolution, but we know he didn't mean it. Christ does. "Whoever is not against us is with us,"  says the gospel. (It says the opposite, too, but using the rule of least restrictive, more scandalous, interpretation, I think this one is the accurate rendering.) The Holy Spirit gives to the church a multitude of gifts for a multitude of needs. People who lash out at the church in their internet rants — righteously, rightfully, or even irresponsibly — have gifts somebody needs; who knows, maybe even someone tonight needed to hear his message. No matter how I feel about their rudeness, or crankiness, or just recalcitrance to the community, they are flowers in the Lord's garden, just like I am. And there are all kinds of flowers, and I'm allergic to some of them. Some of them smell great, and some are stinky flowers. Doesn't matter. God's garden, plenty good room.

"Jesus saw the crowd, and felt compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd." Pope Francis, amusingly and somewhat vexingly, recently told priests to be "shepherds living with the smell of the sheep." Maybe this is a case of using the priestly caste's language to reach them, but it still creates a false and meaningless division between shepherds and sheep. Jesus is the one shepherd; pushing that metaphor too far creates more problems for modern people than it solves. But Jesus felt compassion for us, loved the smell of the metaphoric sheep; loved the stinky flowers. He felt compassion for them. He acted like God, even though he was human like you and me. He let his love pour like rain and sunlight on the just and the unjust, like his heavenly Father. This is how I have to learn to be. This is the thing: test the prophet by her or his love. When all is said and done, is the prophet a reclusive, recalcitrant loner, fixed on the urgency of his/her own message and whether people accept his/her truth, or does s/he say and do what s/he has to do because s/he loves the people of God? Because you can't say you love God and hate people. Can't do it.

One of my theological heroes, James Alison, is working on this. He has a new set of books and videos available that have caused enough of a stir in this country (he's an English priest, former Dominican, who lives in Brazil now) that there is an article about him in the current issue of the Jesuit weekly America. The book and movement are called Jesus: The Forgiving Victim, and it's a rethinking of the Christian story from the ground up as a way of breaking the cycle of violence and retribution in the world, a new way of imagining who God is, and how grace works in us. A gay man himself, Alison has looked to the tradition of the Church, scripture and theology, to discover a way to peace and reconciliation that God reveals to us in Christ in a church that wants to distance itself from the gay experience of human love. Needless to say, it involves the cross, but it is inspired by the experience of the resurrection as an outcome. Calling upon RenĂ© Girard's intuition about mimetic desire, he suggests that the cycle of greed and violence can only be broken by true compassion – feeling-with the other, even if the other is an enemy. What we need to strive for is God-like mercy of the heart, self-giving that is neither imitates the hatred nor the praise of other people, but is purely mercy-for-its-own-sake, that is, divine in origin. 

So I beg you, spread the word. Let's stop with excoriating those who who disagree with us, who aren't the kind of Christians we expect them to be, the kind we perceive ourselves to be. Who Christ is, what Christ means, is a very fragile thing, and people of immense good will (and yes, some others) disagree about that. But what eventually will invite people to consensus is probably not apologetics but mercy. The "clanging cymbals" of those who say, "my Christianity is good, yours is terrible" will win over the hearts neither of the insiders with whom we differ nor the outside seeker looking for direction. What will bring people to Christ is the inviting, wide-open, joyful love that is the gift of the Spirit for those who truly live in Christ. I pray for that. Venomous diatribes, name-calling, cynicism, are not the qualities of a home to which I would want to be invited. 

Yes, glass house shattering. Let's build something new.

Paul Simon has a song that I think of when I hear people blustering away at the church or other Christians, and when I start to rue my own lack of love and patience with people with whom I disagree. The song is called "Tenderness," and it belongs to all our prophets, true and false. I leave you with it, and ask you to pray for me that I can be worthy of the calling I've received. Nothing special, either, you have the same calling if you're reading this. Make us people of the big tent, people who rain mercy on the just and unjust. People who can see the beauty of stinky flowers.

What can I do

What can I do

Much of what you say is true

I know you see through me

But there's no tenderness

Beneath your honesty


Oh, right and wrong

Right and wrong

Ooh, never helped us get along

You say you care for me

But there's no tenderness

Beneath your honesty.


© 1973 Words and Music by Paul Simon