Lenten Meditation 8 March 2012
If you are not trained in a trust of mystery and some degree of tolerance for ambiguity, frankly you will not proceed very far on the spiritual journey. … Why? Because faith is that patience with mystery that allows you to negotiate the stages….it allows God to lead you through darkness—where God knows and I don’t.” (page 55)
The great difficulty in our culture today is the need for certainty and the unwillingness to live with ambiguity. We find it in virtually every area of life: politics, economics, science, and perhaps most especially in religious discourse. I have heard the argument that we are so needy for certitude because we live in such a rapidly changing universe. If I am certain about a particular position I have taken in any area, the argument goes, I will see anyone who disagrees with me as an enemy. Perhaps this is why the campaign for the presidential nomination has become so bitter. Or perhaps this explains why the “Occupy Movement” has gathered such force as well as animosity on both sides. Certainly the argument can be made that it is greed and power that motivate these fights. (I hesitate to call most of our arguments today debates, because there is almost no willingness to concede the value of another’s position or admit my own error.) Religious battles are being fought by ideologues, conservatives and liberals alike, for whom there is no room for doubt or ambiguity. There is almost no room for any middle way.
I came to realize some time ago that we are all selective biblical fundamentalists, that we each have our favorite passages to support our arguments. When I was young, the arguments about wine in Communion were specious to me because Jesus used wine for the Last Supper. A junior high teacher tried to tell us that the Greek word for wine, uinos, really meant grape juice. But I argued back that grape juice would not have made the disciples so sleepy in the garden after dinner. There are other passages that I hold dear to this day and will not allow anyone else to interpret them differently from me. But I am not alone; I am convinced that we all do this with Scripture.
Ambiguity is difficult for young children who are pretty much “black and white” in their understanding of the world. Grey is not an option until we move toward teen years, when we begin to differentiate ourselves from the family of origin, specifically our parents. Teenage rebellion appears as a child starts to become an entity and begins to look at other options than those the parents have given them. The fear of the parents is that all the parents’ hopes and dreams for the child will disappear like smoke or that the exploration will turn deadly. Often a child’s move toward the fringes can be described by an artillery term: firing for effect.
When we cannot live with ambiguity, we tend to distrust anyone who is unlike us; we often demonize those who have a different skin color, speak a different language, have different cultural norms, or come from a different socio-economic background. And of course, those who experience human sexuality in another way from me are the worst of the worst. We have lots of Scriptural “proof texts” to show how this is so, even from God’s perspective. Of course, we are reading those passages from a 21st century perspective and either ignoring or not knowing the cultural times in which they were written and what the passage meant then.
To show how culture plays into this I will tell a story. During Lambeth Conference 2008 I had a conversation with a bishop from an African country who related that “gay” in his country meant “pedophile.” Yes, there were homosexual people in his country but someone who is gay is an abuser of children.
The desire, even the need, to be “right” is an ingrained part of us all. That need might even be a result of the Fall from Grace in Eden. In order to be right, someone or some position must absolutely be wrong. Hopefully as we mature in body and soul and thinking we reach a point that it is much more important to be in relationship than to be right. We may still disagree but we are not willing to end our relationships with those with whom we disagree. In the realm of faith we are still willing to come to God’s table—to the Altar—to worship and break bread together.
Unfortunately our diocese has been ripped apart by an unwillingness to hold disparate opinions in tension within the same diocese. Many who left were certain that those who have chosen to remain with The Episcopal Church are apostates because of their position on one or another theological or biblical point. Faithful people on both sides of the divide have seen relationships destroyed and a divorce-like atmosphere prevail. The litigation may settle who gets the family jewels, but repairing the relationships will take the rest of most of our lives. Difficult accusations have been hurled by folk in both camps and fractures have wounded both the TEC folks and the ACNA folks. God cannot be happy with our division, any more than God was happy in the 11th century when the Eastern and Western Churches divided or in the 16th century at the time of the Protestant Reform or at any other point when Christians fling insults and epithets at one another. Under stress we revert to behavior patterns that are comfortable, but mostly childish in nature where ambiguity is most uncomfortable.
Our task this Lent, I believe, is to seek through the study of Scripture and prayer to discover the God-ness in everyone, absolutely everyone. As we meet Christ in the other, we begin to discover more of ourselves through that encounter. I challenge you to look for Jesus in those you meet today; His presence will make an angry, damning response ever so much more difficult and perhaps open some new avenue of life to you. Try it, just for today, or as the 12 step groups say, “One day at a time.”