Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Why I Stayed (in TEC), Part IX: "The Dignity of Every Human Being" (Section b)

This is the ninth installment in a series of reflections on why I decided to stay with the Episcopal Church (TEC) rather than leave with the rest of the Diocese of South Carolina, which has disassociated from TEC as of November, 2012. Some are calling it an exodus; some are calling it schism; many are confused; the world doesn't care; many are wounded; some have lost their livelihood; the church's witness has been damaged; the Holy Spirit grieves. So it's worth talking about.

"The Dignity of Every Human Being" (Section b)

The Litany from Tuesday Lauds in the Benedictine Breviary contains this line: "Help us discern the hidden ways of love, that we may build a visible community of peace." R. "Lord, help your people." 

The first time I saw this prayer, it struck deep into my heart, bringing at once conviction, hope and a change in focus. It brought conviction, because I had not been concerning myself so much with God's "hidden ways" of love, but instead with the black and white of who is "with" God and who is "against" God. Those categories were the guide of my life. I would stick people either in the "with" pigeon hole or the "against" pigeon hole. And I, depending on which of these holes into which I put them, decided by that criterion whether or not I would hear anything that they had to say. Before the first word ever came out of their mouths, I had made my decision. And that, by the nature of the act, can rob a person of his or her dignity. It does not deem the person worthy of being heard on the most basic level,  i.e., for being a human with a story and an opinion and a perspective.

"Help us to discern the hidden ways of love, that we may build a visible community of peace."

Too often, we try to do this in reverse: we say "Help us build a visible community of peace, so that we may discern the hidden ways of love." We try to build community by seeking common ground first, instead of living in the "hidden ways of love", and finding graceful, merciful community out of that. It is not the way Jesus did it. He didn't go around seeking common ground through shared belief or purity or even culture. He loved --and sought and teased out love from-- everyone, including the sinner, the outcast, the sick, the poor, the non-jew. And He built His community of peace on that foundation.

Here' an example of our tendency to do this. Once I was interviewing a young man to head up a Gen-X outreach ministry. I asked him to tell me about some of his previous evangelism efforts involving people of this age group. This is what he told me. "Well, where I live we have a Friday night ministry with young adults from several churches who gather just to have fun and fellowship. It is a safe place away from the world for us all to meet as an alternative to the local bar scene." I said, "That's nice. Now tell me about some of your evangelism efforts involving people of this age group." He looked at me funny. I said, "What you described to me just now is not evangelism. That's called cloistering. Church members withdrawing from the world to find refuge." There's nothing wrong with providing young adults with an alternative to the bar scene. The problem was in confusing  an "us against the pagan-world" strategy with evangelism. How can you build a growing community of peace if you are afraid to go out onto the turf of the culture and seek and promote the "hidden ways of love" like Jesus did? How can you bring Jesus to the world if your primary method of relating to it is to take pot shots at it from behind your protective wall?

One of the most damaging and love-less postures that the church can take is the fear-based "we vs. they" approach. And we, being members of the very culture we claim to eschew and to love at the same time, tend to do this in all facets of life.

You know what I'm talking about. Ohio St. vs. Michigan, South Carolina vs. Clemson (that's a joke). But more seriously, Rebel vs. Yankee, Republican vs. Democrat, Liberal vs. Conservative, are all  derivations of we/they, good/bad, who's in/who's out thinking. If you are one, and someone is the other, you already discount, if not mentally erase, whatever they have to say, because they are "suspect", by reason of the cause for which they stand, and not for who they are as God's created beings. All of these prejudices have an origin; however, many people can't remember what those origins are. "I don't remember how it came to be. I just know that I'm  not supposed to trust you." It takes takes repentance and courage to break out of this pattern. And repentance brings hope for a better way..

Frank Page, President of the Southern Baptist Convention's Executive Committee, wrote concerning the Convention's growing split and distrust between calvinists and non-calvinists in the denomination: “The truth is, I see an anti-Calvinism now that frightens me; it’s a vitriol that is nasty,” he said, adding he also has friends who were concerned about “extreme Calvinists.” “So it was my opinion that we need to deal with this. … Trust is hitting a new low.” --in a report by Adelle Banks of Religion News Service and posted by the Huffington Post

The articles continues: “The Lord called us to be one,” said Steve Lemke, provost of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and co-author of a book critiquing Calvinism. “It’s his desire that we be one — one in spirit and mind, one in Christ. He didn’t say we have to be one in theology (emphasis mine) or one in worship style.”

I find it sadly ironic that the very denomination that put the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral out there in 1886 (worth looking up on page 876 of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer), and never had any takers until the Evangelical Lutherans took the bait 11 years ago, is now so markedly splintering. We Episcopal priests  can celebrate at the altar of any Evangelical Lutheran Church, and vice-versa, although I certainly cannot now celebrate, as an Episcopal Priest, at many of the "Anglican" altars to which I had free access until a few months ago. What's wrong with this picture? Is that a theology-first, or a love-first situation?

I pray that the Southern Baptists will so yield themselves to one another in love that they can show us Anglicans who we used to be. 

It can be one very major problem indeed, when the church sets itself up as over against the world (except in obvious despotic situations where humanity is oppressed, and the church needs to be a corrective voice). It is another problem entirely when the church divides and sets brother against brother, over matters of interpretation. Too often we fail to respect the dignity of every human being when first we judge their theology and use that as the criterion with which we determine our willingness to associate. 

There are many questions to be pondered these days  in loving, respectful conversation if the "church" can have any hope of reconciling with herself, much less with God. Love must trump theology, if there is to be a coming together, rather than a purifying reaction and a perpetual splitting. 

"Help us to discern the hidden ways of love, that we might build a community of peace."
"Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?"
Answer: "I will with God's help."


  1. you have found your groove...

    true post.

  2. thought you may enjoy this:

    when any church defines itself by exclusion of anybody, it is always wrong. It is avoiding its only vocation, which is to be Christ in the world. The only groups that Jesus seriously critiques are those who include themselves and exclude others from the always-given grace of God.

    Only as the People of God receive the stranger, the sinner, and the immigrant, those who don’t play our game our way, do we discover not only the hidden, feared, and hated parts of our own souls, but the fullness of Jesus himself. We need them for our own conversion.

    The Church is always converted when the outcasts are re-invited back into the temple. You see this in Jesus’ commonly sending marginalized people that he has healed back into the village, back to their family, or back to the temple to “show themselves to the priests.” It is not just for their re-inclusion and acceptance, but actually for the group itself to be renewed.