BELIEVING THINGS, PUBLICLY

I’m tired of political partisanship and really sick and tired of the way the nasty game called politics has taken over our discourse today.  Military deployed and foreign service workers are facing real-life terror and we talk, at home, about how those situations will impact the presidential election!  Worse still, it’s infecting our communities.  If it’s buzzing in St. Mary’s County (population: 100,000+), it’s making it to the grassroots.  And, these days, the roots are pretty toxic.  That’s why I’m putting together an autumn adult formation series having to do with faith and public life.  I’m still lining up the details and inviting local elected officials and I don’t yet have a compelling title, but that’s not the most pressing thing.  It’s the focus that matters.

Some Vestry leaders helped me think about this the other day.  Initial reactions ranged from fear (“You’re going to invite them?”) to doubt (“You’re going to ask an elected official to not talk about himself?”) to half-hearted blessing (“Good luck!”)  Over the course of our conversation, however, they helped reaffirm my motivation.  For Christians, it’s not about the what.  It’s about the why.

Plain and simple: it’s not about the election.  It’s about the outcome.  Whether we come out of this election with any chance at healing depends on the depth of conversation we have now — whether we learn to give thanks to God for the blessings of this nation and, yes, the unique blessings of a cacophonous democracy; whether we also learn to love those who think differently than we do.  The church, the Body of Christ, has a very profound stake in that.  In fact, the faith-based community might be the only community today who has any stake in moving people beyond partisanship to places of genuine healing.

Each session will be a conversation with a local public figure — an elected official or, in some cases, persons seeking election.  We’ll form community in ways only the Body of Christ can: mingle together, pray together, speak and listen openly, and ask God’s blessing on our nation and one another.  The series will conclude with an Election Day Thanksgiving Service, held on the evening of Tuesday, Nov. 6 in which we gather for worship and song and praise.  We’ll thank God for this country, thank God for the blessings of democracy, thank God for those persons who will be elected by the people, and thank God for those persons who stood faithfully for election and did not receive the majority.

In so doing, what if we noticed that public policy is actually a worthwhile discourse, but politics helps no one?  What if people of faith entered the fray, not to win one side of an argument, but to “chill out” and sanctify the conversation by our presence and prayerfulness, to proclaim our faith in God’s Kingdom, and to affirm that there are lots of folks, like us, who care more about the healing of our communities and the common good than about winning points or polls?

A Vestry member said that it’s impossible to separate a politician from their politics.  What if people said that about Christians?  What if we wore our faith so transparently that every breath we make and every action we take bespeaks Jesus, the Son of God, whom the powers of this world crucified but, in the majesty of God, rose and redeemed the entire world?  I get the internal resistance.  Personally, I don’t like being lumped in “conservative” or “liberal” categories — no thanks to some of the loudest Christian voices who so quickly line up with divisive, secular causes.  I get it.  So where’s the Christian voice who humbly asserts faith in another Kingdom, namely God’s, and, in turn, focuses on healing the common good, not winners or losers in electoral politics?  In Christ, we transcend political categories. What if we, disciples of Christ, came to believe that God cares so much about the common good and health of our local communities that whenever our elected officials gather to debate a matter of policy they ask themselves, “I wonder what the Christians would say, whether we’ve listened to the people and are offering a message that will heal, not divide?”

At the end of the conversation with St. George’s Vestry, their initially half-hearted blessing turned into a full-on endorsement.  “Do it, Greg,” they said.  Honestly, their doubts may have remained.  To be even more honest, some of mine do, too.  I don’t know if we can heal these pointed divisions and I don’t know if we’ll be able to sanctify the conversation in the eyes of God.  But I know someone should, and I believe our faith gives us the tools to do it, and I pray that we have God’s grace to do it well.

Communication & Brushing Teeth

Communication is a science or maybe an art form.  Whatever it is, I don’t have it, and I screw it up repeatedly.  I know this because it’s been reported to me, though never directly and never, in fact, with reference to any particular group or situation.  Just: “We need to communicate better.”  Or: “This should have been communicated.”  Still yet: “Remember what we said at the Vestry retreat of [enter any year here]; we’ve got to work on communication.”  Thinking about it, “communication” might be the most often used piece of passive-aggressive advice the church tosses around.

Look, I know little about communication, but I do know one thing — it’s about speaking and listening.  No, wait a minute, I know a great deal about communication; I’m the father of a three-year-old daughter.  Take, for instance, the twice-daily ritual of brushing the teeth (and, yes, somedays it’s a ritual, not necessarily following the exacting orders of a pediatric dentist who, I’m still convinced, has not yet parented an actual, flesh-and-blood child who is not otherwise frightened to be sitting in that chair.  But I digress…)

I’ve tried everything when it comes to communication about brushing teeth.

I’ve tried speaking unilaterally:  “Carter, brush your teeth.  Brush your teeth.  Brush your teeth.  [Insert moment for child in question to notice repetition and be so overcome by its rhetorical sweep that she starts brushing her teeth.  Resume…] Brush your teeth.  Brush your teeth.”  And so on and so forth.  This has limited success, but sometimes it makes you feel like you are, actually, communicating.  (Hint: you’re not.)

I’ve tried listening and, based on what I hear, negotiating:  “Daddy, first I have to kiss and hug Phoebe [the dog], then I have to place my stuffed animal on the pillow, then I have to cover the baby doll, then I have to…”  And so on and so forth.  This has even more limited success than speaking unilaterally, above, and you will feel like you are being driven crazy, especially when you say to your daughter, “You’re driving me crazy!” which, it seems, you say to her so often that she chuckles and parrots your “driven crazy” voice in a way that actually resembles you.

I’ve tried reinforcing good behavior (brushing the teeth, duh!)  with rewards.  I’ve tried punishing with timeout the bad behavior (hugging the dog, harrassing the cats … I’ll admit, the list is amazingly long for a child only three years on this planet!), and that also comes with limited results.  Most parenting resources I’ve found are not concerned so much with the well-being of the child in question but, rather, building up the damaged ego of the 30-year-old, and restoring to him / her a sense of agency and meaning after crushing defeat by an honestly beautiful child, flesh-of-my-flesh, yeah, yeah.  Come to think of it, most congregational growth and development literature (lots of words better than ‘literature’ should be inserted here) has this same focus on the practitioner, and restoring a sense of activity and power to the one person who is, sometimes, vulnerable, broken, open, and, well, Christ-like in the system.  Those adjectives are not altogether bad.  And sometimes they are genuinely holy, beautiful, and lasting, and can pave the way to even greater holiness.

That’s why I started this blog.  I am committed to communicating better, but I also came to terms, long ago, with the reality that I’ve got no power over that.  Sometimes someone has to shut up and sometimes, I’ll admit, that person’s me.  Sometimes someone has to speak up and sometimes, I’ll admit, that person is decidedly not me.   But whatever it is, an art form or science, we’ve got to continue to find that balance between listening and speaking, and that’s the delicate thread of communication.  We can’t get it through bulletin announcements, website updates, or Facebook status checks, although those are helpful.  We also don’t communicate by endless announcements in church, Vestry meetings that drag on, or a sermon that’s pushing 15 minutes, although those are not without their merits (except for the sermon which exceeds normal expectations).  No, communication is something else entirely, something deep and, I think, pretty darn inarticulate.

As for me, I’ll continue to speak, lots, and listen, tons.  I’ll try to be the conduit between the meta-church and what I call the real church — gathered right here in funky Valley Lee, Maryland — but I’m not going to expect that because we say something we’ve communicated it, or because we’ve listened to one group we’ve heard them.  I’ll keep an eye out for the Holy Spirit, who strikes us on the heart and says “listen…”  And in that moment it doesn’t matter how we define the word, but we have been communicated, and that’s all that matters.