Monday, February 2, 2015


Different cultures at different times
         get worked up about different things.
Our culture for the past few centuries
         has been obsessed with sex.
In 1st Century Greece, they were pretty easy going
         about who slept with whom and how.
But they got mightily distressed about food.

It was a huge moral and spiritual issue.
Aside from the kosher question,
         there was eating meat left over
                  from pagan sacrifices.
To eat that meat was an act of worship
         of the pagan god,
like what happens in Holy Communion.
 And to eat food from a pagan temple
         was to make that pagan god a part of yourself
         just as our receiving the sacrament
                  is taking Christ into ourselves.

 That was how one side looked at it.
The other side thought pagan gods did not exist,
         so to be hung up about eating meat from their temples
                  was actually acknowledging false gods.

To us, it may sound pretty silly.
But the things that get our blood up
         might sound silly to the good people
of 1st Christian Church, Corinth.
It wasn’t that long ago that we were insistent
         that women must wear hats in church.
Times change, issues change, but people don’t change much.
We will always find something to squabble over,
         and there will always be at least two sides
                  with powerful arguments to prove they are right.

Enter Paul with his letter to the Corinthians.
Paul was always writing about how to be the Church.
Some of us may not care that much about how to do Church.
But the idea is that Church is where we learn how to function
         in our families, at school, at our jobs, and even in politics.
Church is supposed to shape us for the rest of life.
So how we do Church matters big time
         for our whole life, not just Sunday morning.

Paul is writing to the smart folks
         who think the people who refuse to eat meat
         from the pagan temple are just superstitious.
Paul demonstrates to them right off that he is a bright guy too.
He reasons through the whole thing and agrees with them.
He says they are right.

But just as the smart folks are about to spike the ball
         and do a churchy victory dance,
         he goes on to the disturbing next step.
Being right doesn’t matter.//
Paul says “Sure you know stuff,” but the thing is:
         “Knowledge puffs up. Love builds up.
         Anyone who claims to know something,
         does not yet know the main thing.”

Paul says to Group A, you are right. Group B is wrong.
But do it Group B’s way out of love.
Life does not consist in being right.
In fact being right can be our excuse
to out all that is worst in our characters.
Life comes not from being right  but from being loving.

Now this is not a simple thing.
I have seen a lot of churches miss Paul’s point
         in one of two directions.
Some just keep on fighting over who’s right.
In years past, the church in its rightness has severed ears,
         lopped off heads, and burned people at the stake
         because they were wrong about this or that.
A lot of congregations still divide up
         and go head to head over the issue of the day,
         drive each other out rather than bend their will
                  when they are so cock sure they’re right.

And let me tell you, no issue is too small to divide a church.
No nicety of ritual, music, architecture, or cuisine is too small.
My old church had a perpetual wrangle over
         whether to put the name tags in the narthex
                  or the fellowship hall.
It is a principle of church life, that the smaller the issue
         the hotter the debate.

 The other way to get this wrong takes Paul’s words,
          then mixes in a poison pinch of codependency.
In this mistaken way of doing church:
the most angry, fragile, volatile, needy, dogmatic,
         bombastic, or whiny person wins – we do what they say.
Out of "love," we enable their pathology.
Out of "love," we cow-tow to their dictatorship.
I call it the nutocracy of the church,
meaning we are ruled by the nuts.
I have known churches that deliberately choose the least competent,
         least intelligent, least emotionally balanced person
in the congregation as senior warden
                           to make him feel better.

The problem is: that ain’t love.
Giving the nuttiest person in the room their way
         doesn’t just hurt the church and undercut God’s mission,
         it makes the nutty person nuttier.
It feeds the flame of madness.

 So what’s the middle road, the Anglican Way?
Prayerful conversation.
On any issue – moral, theological, political, you name it –
         ask the church’s position and you’ll hear:
         The Roman Church says x.
         The Lutherans say y.
         The Presbyterians say z.
         The Episcopalians are in prayerful conversation about it.

I used to think that was just wishy-washy.
Now I see that prayerful conversation has a wisdom to it.
Prayerful conversation is an art and a spiritual discipline.
It takes courage and kindness, integrity and patience.

Prayerful conversation is expressing ourselves honestly,
         telling out story, saying what we have at stake
 -- without trying to change the other person’s mind.
Instead, we listen to them, ask genuinely open questions
-- not to challenge -- but to get a better understanding.

 Prayerful, openhearted conversation allows solutions
         to float up as an organic consensus
         instead of resolving issues with win lose votes.
That’s how African tribes work things out.
They call it Indaba.

Nelson Mandela was a young radical
         who knew the ANC was right and apartheid was wrong;
         but that puffed up knowledge just landed him in prison.
That’s where he took up the discipline of conversations
         with people who held different views.
He chose to assume they must know something he didn’t,
                  and he wanted to learn.
That process of conversation effected a peaceful revolution.

One of our greatest living philosophers Jurgen Habermas
         argues that we create our personal value and meaning
         through participating in social institutions – like the church --
         and the lifeblood of those institutions is not their principles
                  but their conversations.

When Frank Griswold became Presiding Bishop
         he called on all of us to step back from our
                  dogmas and certainties
         to engage in conversation with each other,
         curious, compassionate conversation
                  as an act of Christian love.

In a world divided and polarized,
         when extremist rigidity fractures civil society,
         we need the Church to bring back the lost art of conversation.
We can learn it here, then take it home,
         take it to work, take it to the city hall.
When we are not too sure of ourselves
         to listen to one another,
         our world becomes far more interesting,
                  and livable.