Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Poor in Spirit and Those Who Mourn

Jesus’ first recorded words, out in the Galilean hillside, were these: 
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. 
The Sermon on the Mount,
 Albert Decaris, France, 1953
In the world of literary interpretation, there are few pieces of writing that have promoted more discussion, analysis, explication than the beatitudes. The first one alone: when Jesus spoke of the “the poor in spirit,” did he mean the actual poor? If material prosperity is a sign of God’s blessing (isn’t that what we’re told?), then surely “poor in spirit” must mean something other than physical poverty?

The word “poor” that Jesus used, the  Greek Word ptochos, describes a beggar, “desitute of wealth, influence, position, honour, . . . helpless, powerless to accomplish an end." (Studylight)

Most interpretations assume it’s not real poverty Jesus was speaking of, not genuine destitution, but an attitude of receptivity:  
"The kingdom of God can only be received by empty hands. Jesus warns against (a) worldly self-sufficiency: you trust yourself and your own resources and don't need God; (b) religious self-sufficiency: you trust your religious attitude and moral life and don't need Jesus." ( Michael H. Crosby, Spirituality of the Beatitudes: Matthew's Vision for the Church in an Unjust World) 
So – don’t trust your wealth. And don’t trust your self-sufficiency. We can manage that. Kind of.

And most interpretations assume this isn't an ongoing state, but a one time occasion: the prodigal son, turning toward home, convinced of his failure and unsure of his welcome. The thief on the cross, asking “Lord, remember me.” We acknowledge our poverty of spirit as a step toward salvation and eternal life. 

But what if Jesus meant something different? What if this “poverty of spirit,” this utter dependency, is the permanent state of those who claim to follow him?

N. T. Wright argues that the first beatitude, and those that follow, are an ongoing sign of God’s kingdom here on earth:
“‘Blessings on the poor in spirit! The kingdom of heaven is yours!’ doesn’t mean, ‘You will go to heaven when you die’. It means you will be one of those through whom God’s kingdom, heaven’s rule, begins to appear on earth as in heaven. The Beatitudes are the agenda for kingdom people. They are not simply about how to behave, so that God will do something nice to you. They are about the way in which Jesus wants to rule the world. He wants to do it through this sort of people—people, actually, just like himself.” (Simply Jesus) 
Too often, Christians are known as the ones with the answers: judgmental, arrogant, quick to find fault. Insensitive. Unwilling to listen. Certain we’re right, and others, always, are wrong. 

We hear the part about God wanting to rule the world through us, but miss the reality of what that looks like: waiting in humility for God to work. Listening, with open hands, for a way better than our own.

I like Oswald Chamber’s description of this:  
“As long as we have a conceited, self-righteous idea that we can do the thing if God will help us, God has to allow us to go on until we break the neck of our ignorance over some obstacle, then we will be willing to come and receive from Him. The bed-rock of Jesus Christ’s Kingdom is poverty, not possession; not decisions for Jesus Christ, but a sense of absolute futility: “I cannot begin to do it.” Then, says Jesus, “Blessed are you.” That is the entrance, and it takes us a long while to believe we are poor. The knowledge of our own poverty brings us to the moral frontier where Jesus Christ works. (Studies in the Sermon on the Mount)
Blind Beggar, Richard Hedley, UK, 1897
This poverty of spirit is both entrance and arena: an expansive frontier where change becomes possible. In a culture that prizes resourcefulness, independence, “can-do” attitudes, confident certainty, we tend to run from that place Chambers points toward: the wilderness where our answers fall short, our neat logical categories shatter. I catch glimpses of it when I’m willing to walk beside people in pain and confusion, to listen with compassion to views not my own.

The more I try to understand what it is to be “poor in spirit,” the more I see it linked to the sentence that comes after: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

If “blessed” means “happy,” this makes no sense at all.

But if "blesssed" means, as I suggested last week, "rightly placed, set in right relationship with earth, other humans, and God as well," then mourning takes on new meaning.

This isn't the mourning of personal loss, grief for our own individual sorrows, although that can certainly be part of it. It's the grief of seeing how far we are from the kingdom God invites us to demonstrate, sorrow over the distance between the just, generous world we are called to model and the systems of injustice and destruction we accommodate in everything we do.

Gregory of Nyssa, (c. 335 – c. 395) wrote "It is impossible for one to live without tears who considers things exactly as they are."  Many centuries later, Bible scholar M. Eugene Boring expanded on this idea: 
"One of the characteristics of the true people of God is that they lament the present condition of God's people and God's program in the world…This is the community that does not resign itself to the present condition of the world as final, but laments the fact that God's kingdom has not yet come and that God's will is not yet done." (The People's New Testament Commentary)
I want to run from sorrow as much as I want to run from helplessness.  But the first step toward change is acknowledgement of where we are, and acknowledegement of our inability to fix it. Walter Brueggemann has written extensively about lament, and the force of lament in the face of denial. He describes laments as “refusals to settle for the way things are. They are acts of relentless hope that believes no situation falls outside of Yahweh's capacity for transformation.” And he speaks of grief as a subversive, transfomative act, an act of "tearful defiance thrown in the face of empire. The weepers in their weeping said, 'We will not be silent. We will not swallow our tears. We will tell the truth about loss.'"

Oswawldo Guayasamin, Ecuador
I've spent much of my life working hard to manage grief, trying hard to be resourceful and resilient. But maybe there’s a time to stop, look closely at the world, and speak out in tearful defiance, to say, with the prophets, "Like an empty-handed beggar I am helpless in the face of all that grieves me, but I won't be silent. And I won't pretend that all is well."

So I grieve.

Intractable mental illness in a culture impatient with human frailty.

Disordered family systems in a world where investment in children is rarely rewarded.

Twelve million children unsure of their next meal in a country that spends billions each year on nuclear weapons, billions more locking non-violent offenders away. 

I grieve industries dependent on child slavery for profits. 

Children lost to preventable disease, lack of clean water, war, young men with guns.

Communities lost to religious violence, rising flood waters, unmanned missiles, mudslides, fires.

I grieve the loss of real dialogue about the challenges that face us, the secret money that shapes policy,  shouts down dissent,and leads us in directions we should never go.    

A century ago, our grandparents talked about the war to end all wars.

They looked toward an end to disease.

Knowledge would save us.

Reason would pave the way toward peace.

Our knowledge has brought us new diseases, new weapons, sorrows unimagined a century ago.

And reason, reasonably applied, can only show how helpless we are in the face of our own failures.

Surely we should grieve? And wait – poor in spirit – for the comfort promised. For God to work. For his people to take their place as blessed: agents of the kingdom, humble recipients and bestowers of grace, in that wide open space where we leave our shoddy tools behind and listen for an answer. 

Recònditas Señales, Eduardo Kingman, Ecuador, 1969
I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God. As, in a theatre,
The lights are extinguished, for the scene to be changed
With a hollow rumble of wings, with a movement of darkness on darkness,
And we know that the hills and the trees, the distant panorama
And the bold imposing facade are all being rolled away—
. . . I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.                               
. . . In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not. 
                             (T S Eliot, East Coker, Four Quartets)
This is the third in a series on Lent and the Beatitudes:

    An  Alternative Narrative: February 10
    Seeking Blessing in a Fracture Land: Februaray 17

Lenten Reflections from 2012:

     Looking toward Lent
     Lenten Sorrow : Lament and Nacham
     Lenten Silence: Charash, Be Still
     Lenten Sweetness: Tasting Towb    
     Lenten Submission: Rethinking Hupotassō
     Lenten Song: Remembering Ranan

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Seeking Blessing in a Fractured Land

Last week, at a Pennsylvania sustainable agriculture conference, I attended a seminar with the cheerful title “Understanding the Role of Environmental Agent Exposures in Health and Disease.”

Seated in a comfortable lecture hall in the Penn Stater conference center, I watched a series of slides reminiscent of a series I assembled for some presentations on food and farming I’ve led in the past year. The upward curves looked familiar: Increases in autism. Increases in obesity and diabetes. Increases in food allergies.

I was alarmed to see the series go on longer than my own: Parkinsons. Psyczophrenia. Leukemia.

Rick Woychik, the presenter, deputy director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Science, (a division of the National Institute of Health), quickly dismissed the idea that such explosive increases are the result of better diagnosis or some kind of genetic change. “We’ve controlled for the diagnosis theory. And genetic change takes generations, not decades.” His conclusion was the same as my own, although much more firmly stated: “The cause for these dramatic diseases is environmental.”

Woychik went on to explain the challenge of identifying specific causes, talked about the thousands of changes introduced to our environment and food supply in just the past few decades, reminded us that the human body, like the environment itself, is a system, with interdependent parts.

He described the old ways of testing environmental hazards: put some cells in a Petrie dish, introduce the substance to be tested, watch what happens. Or feeding some lab rats something new for a period of weeks, while everything else stays the same.

Not only are bodies far too complex for these simple tests to give adequate data, but how do you test the multiple ways that various agents interact with each other? New substances in packaging interact with new substances in food interact with pesticides and other toxins and with nanoparticles introduced at an alarming rate. Woychik talked quickly: BPA not just in plastic bottles, but lining aluminum cans, and coating cash register receipts. Substances crossing the placenta, interfering with brain development of infants in their mothers’ wombs, with results that might not appear until the onset of Parkinson’s or osteoarthritis or other diseases, decades later.

When he finished and asked for questions, there were several seconds of stunned silence. One listener said quietly: “I feel informed, but not empowered.” A young woman raised her hand and asked, “If you had a daughter who was pregnant, in her first trimester, what would you tell her?”

In some countries, the Precautionary Principle holds sway. It was stated as part of the Rio Conference, or "Earth Summit" in 1992: 
"In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation."
Another formulation, from the 1998 Wingspread Conference on the Precautionary Principle, is a bit more direct: 
"When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically."
In some countries the Precautionary Priniciple governs food regulation, agricultural practice, mining and drilling, introduction of synthetic products or genetically modified crops.

In the US, the assumption has been, if it’s good for business, it’s good for the rest of us. Which has brought us chemically and radioactively mutated wheat, feed grains laced with pesticide, growth hormones in our children’s milk, high fructose corn syrup in foods that once were completely healthy.

Keystone XL Tar Sands Climate Threat
And carbon-laden, dirty, environmentally destructive tar sands oil, prompting the largest environmental protest in US history – today! – asking for President Obama to reject, completely, the Keystone XL pipeline and any other pipeline expansion that would further the mining of tar sands oil     

I've been carrying with me the words of Jesus in from the Beatitudes (Matthew 53-10): “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” “Blessed are those who mourn.” “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”

They’re puzzling words, partly because we see “blessed” as synonym for “happy”. We have no word that comes close to the complexity of the original word, “makarios,” which seems to imply being rightly placed, set in right relationship with earth, other humans, and God as well. There’s a hint in “makarios” of participation in eternity, of deep harmony, of that inner well-being that sometimes washes through us when we know we’re loved, living wisely in ways that benefit those we care for. 

The best explanation I can find is from Spiros Zodhiates, Greek-American Bible scholar:
To be makarios, blessed, is equivalent to having God's kingdom within one's heart. Aristotle contrasts makarios to endees, the needy one. Makarios is the one who is in the world yet independent of the world, [whose] satisfaction comes from God and not from favorable circumstances.   (Complete Word Study Dictionary)
The beatitudes make no sense once we've bought the version of “happy” sold in every thirty-second ad: convenient, easy, enviable, cheap. Whiter teeth, the newest phone, more food, and more, and more.

Puzzling over the beatitudes, and what they have to say to the issues of the day, I came across this extended quote by Brian Zahnd, a mid-western pastor and author of a new book called “Beauty Will Save the World”: 
"The Beatitudes pose a direct challenge to the way the world is run. The Beatitudes are a subversive manifesto at odds with superpower agendas. As a result, the Beatitudes (when liberated from sentimental patronizing) elicit differing responses depending on who the hearer is. There are those who are blessed by the Beatitudes and hear them as a clarion call for welcome change. Others feel threatened by the radical revolution the Beatitudes appear to embody. . . 
The Beatitudes are the antithetical ethos to the superpower mantra of “we’re number one!” The Beatitudes are deliberately designed to shock us. If we’re not shocked by the Beatitudes, it’s only because we have tamed them with a patronizing sentimentality—and being sentimental about Jesus is the religious way of ignoring Jesus! Too often the Beatitudes are set aside into the category of “nice things that Jesus said that I don’t really understand.” 
"We have not been formed by the values of the Beatitudes; we have been raised on the received text of a superpower. (The notion that the received text of a superpower and the sacred text of the Sermon on the Mount can be made to fit together nicely is lunacy!) Contemporary Americans are scripted in a way that is completely counter to the values of the Beatitudes. We certainly don’t bless poverty or sorrow or meekness or hunger or persecution—yet it is the poor and sorrowful and meek and hungry and persecuted that we find Jesus blessing in the Beatitudes. At the very least, this should perplex us." 
I don’t have Zahnd’s book – so can’t read his conclusions. But I hold tightly to the perplexity he describes, and welcome the clarion call for change he hears in Jesus' words. Running down our current road will never bring blessing – just more and more suffering, poverty, disease.

Blessing lies in another direction. Blessing comes when we set easy answers aside, force ourselves to understand the depth of our mistaken desires, begin the painful process of divesting, rethinking, moving in a new direction. Blessing comes when we seek the vision of wholeness, and holiness, embedded in Jesus' teachings.
What does that look like, for me, today?

I’ve given up wheat and high fructose corn syrup for Lent. I’m sure that sounds ridiculous, insignificant, wildly unhelpful, not even marginally spiritual. But the more I learn about our current food systems, the more convinced I am they need to change, and wheat and corn syrup have become, for me, signs of harm done, and symbols of our folly. They’re implicated in far too many maladies to name, present in most of our processed foods, and giving them up forces me to look for real nourishment, and to grieve my own addiction to sweet, cheap, convenient food.

I’m also spending time, a few minutes a day, advocating for change I believe in. Today, that means posting comments on asking President Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline. And posting some links to organizations working on climate change and our excessive dependence on fossil fuel.
And praying. Always praying.

For wisdom.

Real health.


When people forget that Jesus is the bread of the world, they start eating junk food--the food of the Pharisees and of Herod, the bread of moralism and of power. To often the church forgets the true bread and is tempted by junk food. Our faith is not just about spiritual matters; it is about the transformation of the world. The closer we stay to Jesus, the more we will bring a new economy of abundance to the world.  (Walter Brueggeman, The Liturgy of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity)   Amen.

This is the second in a series that will continue through Lent (February 13 to March 31). 
1. An  Alternative Narrative: February 10

Sunday, February 10, 2013

An Alternative Narrative

In the liturgical year of our secular religion, last Sunday was a high feast day, maybe the highest.

The Superbowl was the largest mass media event of the year, and the biggest social media event ever, generating over 30 million public tweets. Thirty second ads cost  $3.8 million each, and over 108 million people tuned in to watch the game, the ads, and the halftime show.

A new movement, MissRepresentation’s #NotBuyingIt, called attention to the extent that Superbowl ads objectify women and use women’s bodies in ways that demean and dehumanize women. 

Anti trafficking groups called attention to the sex trafficking that attends the Superbowl, which has been called  "the single largest human trafficking incident in the United States." 

Other groups discussed additional forms of slavery represented by the Superbowl: in the cheaply produced commemorative jerseys, the food, the materials used to produce our large-screen tvs. 

The Superbowl was both celebration and enactment of our prevailing religion of consumption, competition, violence, power. Some of the victims were painfully visible: the women objectified and dehumanized in demeaning ads, the players courting concussion-induced dementia.

Not My Life: 2012 documentary
But many of the victims are invisible, so far from sight we imagine they aren’t there: child slaves harvesting chocolate for our sweet valentines, adults and children trapped in systems of exploitation, trafficked illegally to harvest our tomatoes, cotton, coffee, sugar cane, or working long hours, six or seven days a week, to produce cheap goods for companies that drive the prices ever lower. 

We enjoy our convenience and comfort, working hard to ignore the mounting evidence that our current systems are unjust, unhealthy, unsustainable, and contribute to an industry of human suffering that dwarfs the slave trade of earlier centuries. 

In thinking and praying about where we are and where we’re headed, I came across Walter Brueggemann’s "Nineteen Counterscript Theses", presented at the 2004 Emergent Conference and published in The Christian Century in 2004. 

Points one to six:
1. "Everybody has a script. People live their lives by a script that is sometimes explicit but often implicit.
2. "We are scripted by a process of nurture, formation and socialization that might go under the rubric of liturgy. Some of the liturgy is intentional work, much of it is incidental; but all of it, especially for the young and especially for the family, involves modeling the way the world "really is." The script is inhaled along with every utterance and every gesture, because the script-bestowing community is engaged in the social construction of a distinct reality.
3. "The dominant script of both selves and communities in our society, for both liberals and conservatives, is the script of therapeutic, technological, consumerist militarism that permeates every dimension of our common life. §         I use the term therapeutic to refer to the assumption that there is a product or a treatment or a process to counteract every ache and pain and discomfort and trouble, so that life may be lived without inconvenience.

  •  I use the term technological, following Jacques Ellul, to refer to the assumption that everything can be fixed and made right through human ingenuity; there is no issue so complex or so remote that it cannot he solved.
  •  I say consumerist, because we live in a culture that believes that the whole world and all its resources are available to us without regard to the neighbor, that assumes more is better and that "if you want it, you need it." Thus there is now an advertisement that says: "It is not something you don’t need; it is just that you haven’t thought of it."
  •  The militarism that pervades our society exists to protect and maintain the system and to deliver and guarantee all that is needed for therapeutic technological consumerism. This militarism occupies much of the church, much of the national budget and much of the research program of universities.
  • It is difficult to imagine life in our society outside the reach of this script; it is everywhere reiterated and legitimated.
4.  "This script—enacted through advertising, propaganda and ideology, especially in the several liturgies of television—promises to make us safe and happy. . .
5.  "That script has failed. . . . We are not safe, and we are not happy. . .
6.  "Health depends, for society and for its members, on disengaging from and relinquishing the failed script.
The script Brueggemann describes is disturbingly visible in events like the Superbowl extravaganza. 

Sociology professor Michael Vos, exploring the theology of women, the body, consumption, violence, and control expressed in the Superbowl, asks:
"I wonder how we, as the people of God, might counternarrate the Super Bowl—this iconic event so disturbingly representative of what counts as sacred in our culture. In a way, our collective witness in the midst of this nation-defining event—the story we tell outside of church—is so much more important than the story we tell inside of church. For this outside story bears witness to our inside story. Will we imagine women in the way Doritos does? Will we pretend that we can simply mentally dismiss particular components of the Super Bowl "package" and in this way resist its hegemonic control? Or will we provide a compelling and alternative story about what it means to be image-bearers, in physical bodies, who live for a different sort of world." 
I just spent two days at a conference run by PASA, the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. Surprisingly, the theme of narrative and counternarrative surfaced repeatedly in the main sessions, seminars, even side conversations: are we all commodities, or something more? Is land a resource to be consumed, or a gift to be renewed, a regenerative treasure? Is value measured best by dollars, or by moments of beauty, rich relationship, generous community?

Even more, the conversation turned, again and again, to this: our systems are broken. It all needs to change. And until it all changes, nothing changes. 

The season of Lent is an essential time for disengaging from the pervasive narrative we live in, and for envisioning an alternative narrative. The Israelites, unable to picture any world but Egypt, spent forty years in the wilderness, disengaging from the past, preparing for the future. Jesus, preparing for his ministry, spent forty days in the wilderness; confronted there with the narrative of power, comfort, and consumption, he affirmed an alternative, where power resides in God’s hands alone, where comfort is found in obedience, not self-protection, where spiritual nourishment precedes physical.

I’ve been feeling the need, more than ever, to find in Lent an occasion of examination, of disengagement from that "therapeutic, technological, consumerist militarist narrative" Brueggemann describes. My time at the PASA conference encouraged me further to undertake what Brueggemann suggests is the role of the church: "the steady, patient, intentional articulation of an alternative script that we testify will indeed make us safe and joyous."

My own church has been moving slowly through the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus' own articulation of that alternative script. While the Superbowl ads, game, half time show, insist that we will be happiest if we win, if we consume, if we look a certain way, drive a certain car, fulfill every need the moment we imagine it, the Beatitudes and passages following offer a stark alternative.

I want that alternative. 

I see, more and more clearly, where our current script leads: unhealthy food, unhealthy relationships, unhealthy environment, unhealthy minds, exploitation of child labor, of women’s bodies, of water and land, hardening of conscience as we excuse our own complicity in an abusive, immoral system.

My goal for Lent is to look for ways to extricate myself from the exploitative aspects of our economy and culture, to find out more about fair trade, fair farming, restorative justice, socially responsible investment

And to affirm that alternative script proclaimed and demonstrated by Jesus himself, a life-giving story in which the last become first, the leaders are servants, and those with least, those most burdened, most willing to face the brokenness around them, find themselves comforted, nourished, blessed.

Please join me in this exploration.  Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments

This is the first in a series that will continue through Lent (February 13 to March 31). 

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Embracing "Conversatio"

Several weeks ago, a friend blogged about the need to “show up for the conversation.” She was reflecting on a diversity forum she had missed, but her words reminded me of all the conversations we avoid or leave too fast, the chances we miss to see the world from another point of view.

St. Benedict, Herman Nieg, Austria, 1926
A few days later, my spiritual director mentioned, almost in passing, that one of the Benedictine rules, “conversatio morum,” points to the interplay of conversion and conversation. Literally, it means “ongoing conversion of life,” “reformation of life,” or “conversation of life.”

Apparently, 8th century scribes, puzzled at Benedict’s use of the word “conversatio” – implying an ongoing process, happening across time -  assumed he meant “conversio” - a one-time change, a completed event. The error wasn’t discovered until 1912, when Cuthbert Butler, Benedictine monk, abbot, and church historian, consulted the earliest manuscripts for a new edition of the Benedectine rule, and replaced “conversio” with Benedict’s “conversatio.” In the century since he reclaimed the original term, much has been written about what Benedict meant by his use of the word “conversatio.”

I’ve been thinking about what matters. Somehow Benedict’s phrase “conversatio morum” cuts close to the heart of what I find most important.

For me, conversation matters deeply. I learn best by seeing the world through others’ eyes. I love wandering outside with friends who know bird songs, butterfly habits, where to look for hidden owls. I want to see what they see, know what they know.

And I love sitting in other people’s homes, sitting on the front stoop in neighborhoods not my own, hearing a different cadence of life, trying to understand family, community, value, from a different angle, a new perspective.

I sat last week in our church’s food closet line, waiting my turn to collect food for a friend. I listened to the conversations around me: lost jobs, a home fire that upended a fragile family, a man who lives in his car, preparing for colder weather. I talked with a woman who knows little English, spoke with another no longer able to walk without a cane.  Watched as casual acquaintances from church walked by, noted me, and wondered: Why is she in line here? Breathed, just a little, the embarrassment of needing help. Of being on the receiving end.

I’ve been puzzling over the interplay between conversation and conversion, the ongoing conversion Christ invites us to: the continual call to follow, the ongoing change from selfishness to love. We’re called to be like Jesus, willing, like him, to identify fully with those on the wrong side of the equation. Willing to sit with the hungry, the broken, the contagiously diseased, the one of lowest reputation.

Conversation is impossible without humility. Humility is prequel to conversion.

I grew up in a faith tradition that saw conversion as a one time decision. Confess your sins, pray the sinner’s prayer, trust Jesus as your savior, cross the line from the unsaved to saved. Step from wrong to right.

Some of those I watched in that tradition walked on from there as impervious as they began, as proud, as hard of heart. They gathered their sense of rightness around them like the Pharisees’ robes, pronouncing judgment, dispensing unsought opinions with no trace of wisdom, humility, or kindness.

Others displayed that “conversatio morum” Benedict described. Bible open on the kitchen table, lives open to the pain and wisdom of others, hearts receptive to the Holy Spirit’s whisper, they demonstrated an ongoing change, continuing growth in generosity, forgiveness, love.

I want to be like those saints who modeled for me that ongoing conversation, who, decades into the life of scripture, could ask me, a kid, a young adult, a younger believer: what do you think that verse means? How do you think I could live that out?

I want to follow the example of those aging witnesses who still, at seventy, eighty, ninety, were growing in mercy, kindness, patience. Like my grandmother, who at ninety, finally slowed by a series of small strokes, confessed, in a slow whisper: “I’m repenting my impatience. I was always so impatient with people who moved slowly. And now I move slowly. And I see how wrong I was.”

“Conversatio” suggests an ongoing willingness to re-examine, rethink, listen once again.

There are things I believe. Many.

I believe the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. Wholeheartedly. I’ve gone over them repeatedly, with doubting teens, young adults from other backgrounds. I’ve spent time parsing the words, puzzling over alternatives. I’ve lined up other faiths, read reasons, tracked through questions, traveling back to the same place every time: I believe Jesus was who he said he was, son of God, Messiah, visible expression of grace and truth, firstborn of the new creation, conqueror of death.

I believe it. But I understand why many don’t. And even thought I’ve had more than my share of conversations with those of other faiths, of no faith, of uncertain faith, I want to continue the dialogue: because my own faith depends on it. Because my own compassion shrinks when I stop listening. Because I care what others believe, long to see truth together, understand, if only a little, what Jesus meant when he talked about heading out into the wild to find the wandering sheep. Even while I understand, more than a little, how offensive the image of wandering sheep can be to those who don’t share my belief.

I believe in a world imagined, intended, loved. That doesn’t mean I believe in a young earth, created in six twenty-four hour days. I’m troubled by those who insist they know how and when creation happened. The ancient language of the early Hebrews sings a song of loving intention, but the words leave wide latitude of interpretation. All our theories have holes large enough for dinosaurs to crawl through. I believe God used processes of expansion, of evolution, of artistic expression, processes we have yet to discover and have no name for, at the same time that he hovered, watched, prodded, laughed, sang, leaned in with delight as his great invention unfolded.

I understand the desire to nail things down. And I know my own ways of seeing seem narrow to some, and sometimes offensive (heretical?) to those committed to a binary way of seeing: this or that. Right or wrong. Evolution or design. I’ve been accused of side stepping issues, of “formica facts” (my friend’s rephrasing of my insistence on “counter-truths”). I lean toward paradox. Or what Wendell Berry calls “the way of ignorance.”

As I said, there are things I believe. I believe in a life after this one – although I don’t know what that will look like. And it’s not up to me to say who will be there.

I believe we are called to love. Although I am often clueless about what love would do in a given situation.

I believe I am often wrong. Often most wrong when I’m most certain I’m right.

Which is why I value conversation so highly. I’ve learned far more than I can tell from people whose experience of the world is very different from my own.

I think of my Jewish friends, Henry and Clifford, high school philosophers who patiently attempted to expand my horizons on everything from God to baseball.

I think of the reformed seminarians, confident young men whose theological certainties challenged my own and deepened my longing for grace, humility, and a deeper form of wisdom.

I think of my Irish Catholic friend, Ursula, whose experience of spiritual direction, mysticism, and mercy opened unexplored avenues of prayer.

I pause, reflect, give thanks for all those who have shared their stories over coffee, asked questions late into the night, prodded me, encouraged me, challenged me, shared books, ideas, insights, dreams.

I go back to Paul’s letter to the Romans: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

What he’s describing is that conversatio morum Benedict spoke of: an ongoing conversion, a lifelong process of change that takes place as we wrestle, together, against the patterns of this world.

Ah – but that conversation is risky.

Think of Jesus – risking reputation to talk to the woman at the well, eating dinner in the homes of notorious sinners, encouraging, even affirming, the women who joined men in conversation.

Risky for him – but more so for the others: conversation with Jesus invited drastic change. The woman at the well, moving from isolation to bold witness. Zaccheus, the tax collector, upending his personal economy to disburse his dishonest accumulation of wealth. And Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus. In what ways did conversation at Jesus’ feet lead her far from the safe, conventional roles of her day?

Where will real conversation lead us? Sooner or later – to conversion. Change of heart. Ongoing transformation. Benedict’s conversatio morum.
Woman at the Well, Emmanuel Nsama, Zambia, 1970
This is the last of a series for the new year: "What Matters"
Please join the conversation.  What makes conversation difficult? How has conversation prompted change in your own life? What are the risks and rewards of conversation? What fears keep us silent? 

Your thoughts and experiences in this are welcome. Look for the "__ comments" link below to leave your comments

For a detailed, exegetical discussion of this topic, read Lois Malcolm's Conversion, Conversation, and Acts 15: "Conversion and conversation converge in the light of trinitarian theology and inthe book of Acts. The point of our moving beyond Jerusalem, of our outreach, is not to make others like ourselves, but to participate in an event that calls every-one involved out of themselves into something new and larger than themselves."