Sunday, November 26, 2006

Present at the Airport

Sitting in the airport, people-watching the holiday travelers finding their way home, the space is crowded with absent people. Despite the occupied chairs and long lines, no one is really present; minds are cast forward to home and business-back-to-normal, memories are lingering over tables pulled out longer and lives reconnected and welcome home hugs too quickly become farewell embraces. No one is actually here, in the airport, in the uncomfortable seats, long lines and lugged luggage. With laptops whirring and ear buds entertaining, with an occasional book spread and ubiquitous cell phones dialing, with only an occasional eye flicked to the scrolling monitors on the wall, no one is really paying any attention to the people passing by, the weather outside, the person sitting nearby whose sagging carry-on is crowding your ankle, the service workers driving the beeping carts or pouring the overpriced coffee. That said, not even the service workers seem to be paying any attention, giving off every signal that they, too, would rather be anywhere but here.

It is transience in microcosm, hurried strides, panicked expressions, vacant stares, animated conversations -- some inane and others heartfelt and sensitive -- with some absent confidant, carried on in comfortable volume born of the assurance that no one else is around. And, of course, in a measure, they are correct. None of the bodies that crowd the space within easy earshot are really there. Faintly aware, perhaps, of a nattering and annoying buzz nearby, their minds are somewhere else. In every way that matters, they are simply not there.

Except, for one fleeting series of moments, me: present, if unwittingly so, to the woman sitting nearby talking too loudly into her cell phone to God knows who. I have now in my consciousness the name of the state in which she began her day, the different state where she would be spending her night, the business she would be transacting not only there, but in the neighboring cities as well. I can tell you that her travel schedule has kept her in the air and airports quite frequently of late, that she was surprisingly upgraded to first-class on her last leg, that she is weary, and that she looks forward to getting back home one of these days soon. And I can tell you that she is pregnant, with some kind of a stage 4 tumor that the doctors advise her not to have removed until the baby is born. “But I am doing fine,” she assured her telephonic confidant. “Really, I’m fine.”

I’ll take her at her word, but against my greatest wishes, I am present now with her and her reality. Present. And though she didn’t ask for my prayers – how could she? She had no idea that I was even present – I will remember her in them, praying that God bless her travels, her fatigue and renewal, her baby, and her health. Whoever she is.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Reaching Inside Each Other

When Valley High School recently produced the play, "The Laramie Project", it generated animated public debate. Initial controversy focused on language in the play that many felt was inappropriate for a high school setting with student actors. Surprisingly, the playwrite approved revisions to alleviate these concerns -- which simply made room for other concerns. In the background of the play, of course, is the topic of homosexuality -- the very mention of which seems to render us incapable of having a reasoned discourse. Laramie, Wyoming is the town where Matthew Shepherd, an openly gay college student, was brutally murdered.

Though I was familiar with the Matthew Shepherd story, and though I had heard about the play, I had never seen the play nor read the script. Well publicized was the fact that the script was not a retelling or reinactment of the murder of Matthew Shepherd. Rather, it represented the fruit of interviews made with townspeople in the months following the tragedy. That said, I still didn't know what to expect when I sat down in the audience on opening night of the production. What I experienced surprised me.

Indeed, the subject of homosexuality is "background" at the most. The play is the story of a community struggling to adjust to a terrible experience, and the worldwide attention that tragedy now focused on them. Just as significantly, it is the story of a group of actors, prodded by their director, who agreed somewhat reluctantly to conduct the interviews. The resulting script brings to life those they interviewed, their own inner reflections as they anticipated and conducted the interviews, and the dynamic of community struggle, grief, discomfort, and healing. While the murder of Matthew Shepherd is certainly at the center of the story, the real story is about how a community looks at itself and attempts to heal. Along the way, audience members are "forced" to listen to a full range of perspectives -- neither simply their own, nor those they may abhor. That, it later struck me, is both the power and the discomfort of the play. Almost never are we exposed to such a full range of reactions and reflections, equally portrayed, equally respected. We prefer to have clear "good guys" and "bad guys," and this play simply would not accomodate us. Short of walking out, we had no choice but to listen to everybody -- those who offended us, those who echoed us, those who wanted to talk about something else altogether, and those who didn't know what to think; listen, as well, to the anguish of those who were reluctant to even ask the questions.

In the process, we were given the privilege of reaching inside a portion of each other.

That same weekend our congregation held a conversation about self-describing ourselves as "open and affirming" to gays and lesbians. It was a good conversation -- a caring conversation -- in which people genuinely tried to listen to each other. As we talked, a familiar question was raised: "why single out one group? Will we next be required to post on the sign that truckers, nurses and firemen are welcome, as well?" Later, as I reflected on the honest question, I thought about Arab travellers who are routinely subjected to searches at airports -- simply because of who they are. I thought of African-Americans who are are routinely shadowed in stores and pulled over by police because their "profile" makes them suspicious. Most of us have no idea what it is like to be "judged" or "suspected" or "rejected" simply because of who we are -- a part of our being that we have not ability to change. What I would now like to say to the questioner in our church gathering is that we will never need to reassure truckers, nurses and firefighters that they are welcome in our fellowship because it would not cross their minds that they wouldn't be. That's not their experience. In order to understand this dynamic of inclusion/exclusion, we will need to talk with those who, based on painful experience, have learned to assume they aren't welcome unless differently reassured. We need some capacity to reach inside another's experience and comprehend it -- otherwise we will rejecting, excluding, judging people for the rest of our lives out of ignorance, in the name of moral conviction.

And that, it seems to me, would be a tragic loss for ourselves, and for those whose gifts we haven't found a way to receive.

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Friday, November 10, 2006

Pledging and Discipleship

It is the annual season in congregational life for preparing the financial forecast for life in the coming year. Budgeting. We are well underway. The "Sermon on the A-mount" has been preached, pledge cards are largely in hand, and the appropriate committee is busy trying to shotgun anticipated expenses and income into some kind of a legitimate marriage. One day soon, after the pleading and cutting have been completed, a budget will be adopted and we will move forward into flights of other fancies.

But what are we to make of this process -- this annual collision of the esoteric and the pragmatic, the prayerful and the pedestrian? Isn't there an inherent conflict of interest between the institutional and the spiritual? Spiritual disciplines, after all, which seek to nest the whole of one's life -- time, talent, money, etc. -- in the context of one's faithful and trustful orientation to the priorities of the Creator seem compromised by the institution's insatiable appetite for funding which sounds perennially something like the man-eating plant "Audrey 2" in Little Shop of Horrors coercing Seymour to "feed me."

Is it, finally, possible for spiritual devotion and institutional necessity to co-exist, or is anything a church does in the name of "stewardship education and development" finally tainted as mere "prettied-up, crass marketing" for the good of the bottom line? I'm more optimistic than that. Though it's true that stewardship can descend into mere spiritualized fundraising in the same way that evangelism can be debased by simple church growth schemes, how we spiritually view our personal assets is, indeed, a critical faith concern. That the church's fiscal necessities must tag along belong the church's responsibility to occasion stewardship reflections -- and sometimes repentance -- simply means that the church must be vigilant about its own integrity. Budgeting must be secondary -- indeed subservient -- to faith development. In the same way that therapists, teachers, preachers, counselors and others have the obligation to exercise special care due to the relational power and authority conferred in their relationships with clients, so the church must be cautious about the way it exercises its intrinsic influence. It must, likewise, submit itself to the same kind of stewardship expectations it asks of its members. How is the spirituality, the convictions and values of the church -- its own time, talent and resources -- utilized and offered as gifts from God and held only in trust? Is the church a model to its members about how to steward its own assets? The institution, after all, can be just as stingy, just as self-centered and self-indulgent as those members who comprise it.

Hard questions. For now, we'll count the cards and see how the budget comes out.