Sunday, April 17, 2016

Waiting for Words

etching, Lewis C. Daniel, New York, 1940s
I didn’t post on this blog last week.

I started one post, then set it aside.

I finished a second, had it almost ready to post, then felt a nagging uncertainty grow to an unmistakable “No.”

I had spent the weekend at a church retreat, and one of the passages we looked at along the way was Philippians 4:8:

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

The post I had written was about the raging storm around transgender use of  public bathrooms in North Carolina. I spent hours reading heartbreaking stories, suicide statistics, psychologists’ assertions, unconvincing data.

I came across some helpful sources in my reading, but found that for those most invested in this topic, even a mention of source can be occasion of great anger.

Even thoughtful questions are not totally safe when emotions run high and accusations drown any attempt at compromise:  
• How do we create the kind of church culture in which transgender people feel comfortable being among us?
• How do we do this but not muddy the waters in terms of what we believe about the clarity of gender distinctions?
• How do we pastor our churches so that they are accepting of transgender people but discerning about the wider societal issues . . .?
• How will we pastor transgender people? What will be our approach to issues such as baptism or church membership or serving in different areas of church life with the transgendered?
How will we teach and model sexuality in a way that strengthens and clarifies real marriage and family life, honours singleness, recognises brokenness, accepts those who ‘don’t fit the box’, and challenges sinfulness with truth and love?
I don’t know the answers to any of those questions.

I’m not sure they’re the right questions.

Even as I think about them, about ways different groups would respond, I picture Jesus, bending in front of an angry crowd, writing in the sand.

When I think of that scene, I long to know what he’s writing.

Even more, I long to know what he’s thinking.

I was taught years ago a form of spiritual reading: picture the scene, and ask God to show you where you are in that scene.

I do not want to be one of the crowd throwing stones.

I don’t want to be the woman, caught in adultery, disheveled and distraught, dragged in front of  a leering crowd.

I picture myself kneeling next to Jesus, so near I can touch him, caught in the swirl of anger and fear, watching him, prayerfully waiting. 
The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
Even that, even Jesus' gentle word of forgiveness and healing: in our current disordered world, even that could occasion an angry response. What sin? Who says? How dare you forgive me/
Kristus and the Woman Caught in Adultery, 
Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, 1918, Dresden

We live in a strange, disordered time.

People I know who have always valued honesty, kindness and respect enthusiastically support a presidential candidate who can’t speak without lying, demeans everyone who disagrees with him, believes winning justifies any dishonorable behavior.

People whose parents and grandparents were immigrants and refugees not very long ago talk of building walls, closing borders, shutting off aid to the greatest wave of refugees since the days of World War II.

More people struggle with poverty and inequity than at any time since the Great Depression.

More people of color are incarcerated in the US than were held in slavery, many for failure to pay exorbitant fines which by any measure of justice  would be illegal. Many others are held, pretrial, because they can’t afford bail.

This week, hundreds have taken to the streets: in Philadelphia to demand economic justice and a living wage; in DC, to demand fair elections and an end to campaigns sold to wealthy donors and dark money industries. Black Lives Matter protests have been gathering in Minneapolis, Phoenix, Chicago, Philadelphia. Campaign stops in New York and Pennsylvania have been marked by growing protests, dozens of arrests, threats of violence.

In early January, 2015, I looked back on a year of turbulence: the start of Black Lives Matter. The bombing in Boston.

The unrest and violence have escalated; the dissatisfaction and dangers I mentioned then are more real, more insistent, with no sign of resolution.

In that post I described hearing religion editor Phyllis Tickle speak about the pattern of history: long periods of stability interrupted by times of great change. 
She talked about the accusations and disruption that have accompanied times of change: inquisitions, beheadings, violence and horror from challenged religious powers. 
Whenever there is so cataclysmic a break as is the rupture between modernity and postmodernity… there is inevitably a backlash.  Dramatic change is perceived as a threat to the status quo, primarily because it is. 
She ended with a warning so sharply stated I’ve remember it almost word for word: “If you leave here and you don’t do ministry on your knees, in constant prayer, you haven’t heard a word I’m saying.” 
heard her, but didn’t understand: what we’re seeing, in immigration, economics, church governance, a host of other troubling issues, is a paradigm shift, a battle for authority and power. And we’re nowhere near done. 
Phyllis Tickle died last spring, but the truth of her warning lingers.

I’ve been rethinking one of her metaphors: chords woven of many strands that slowly come unraveled, and the period of danger and uncertainty as new strands are woven together.

The strands around us are frayed and loose: our understanding of gender and sexuality. Our experience of race and nationality, privilege and belonging. Economic models of work and wages. Ideas about democracy, justice, faith and family.

We fortify the past, desperately struggle to hold the strands together. 

We look around for someone to blame, grab for stones, throw without thinking.

Or we hide in fear, hoping this time will pass by quickly. Hoping if we avert our gaze, think of other things, the ship of state will right itself with no need of intervention.

As Tickle warned, far too often times of change have been accompanied by violence and bloodshed.

Far too often, misguided Christians have been agents of injustice in those times of upheaval: so determined to hold to the familiar, unraveling strands they miss what God is doing.

Sometimes great change comes through violence, anger, swords, stones, agonizing sorrow.
sketch, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1603, Holland

Sometimes it comes through praise, prayer, miraculous throwing down of walls, gentle words turning away wrath.

I know which model I prefer.

I don’t know how to get there.

So I kneel in the sand, watch, listen, learn, wait.

And pray, in old ways and new.

For wisdom to speak when words are what’s needed.

For grace to remain silent when there’s nothing true, or just, or commendable I can say.