Tuesday, May 28, 2013

It's Always Fun Til Someone Loses An I

Leaving a church is never easy.  Being a part of a congregation involves a large emotional investment; there's the temptation not to allow oneself to open up and become a part of the lives of others, if only because you know some day it has to end.  Of course, that's precisely the wrong response.  Real love is about accepting the risk of pain and loss because the joy of sharing with others outweighs whatever pain will surely come from having to go on to the next part of one's life.

Each of the four churches Lisa has served has offered unique opportunities to grow in fellowship with a diverse group of people, to experience in its fullness the marvelous variety that is human life.  With sixteen days until the moving truck arrives and thirty-three days until our last Sunday, the goodbyes are beginning and they are rough.  Last week I celebrated my last chance to lead our "Just Jesus" class, a wonderful small group in which we went through a series of in-depth studies of the life and ministry of Jesus.  We were, to be honest, as unlikely a group to agree about much of anything as one could imagine.  It worked, though, because we shared a simple goal - learning together who this Jesus was, and what he might be for us today.

Tonight, I meet with yet another small group.  Called "Pushing The Envelope", it is the most marvelous and strange group I have ever encountered.  Once a month, a small group gets together and the class leader hands around a bag filled with envelopes.  Inside the envelopes are stories printed from the internet or cut from newspapers (a lot fewer of those, let me tell you).  They can be about any topic at all.  One person reads them, and then we sit and discuss them.

In an age when far too many people are encouraged to act like assholes because the Internet frees them from the normal rules of courtesy, Pushing The Envelope offers a laboratory in which we can experience what it is like genuinely to disagree without becoming disrespectful.  Because there is nothing at stake, we are free to speak our minds without fear that we will lose something should the discussion turn against one or another person.  Even in the midst of disagreements - and when I say disagreements, let me just note that we've managed to talk about abortion, gay marriage, the recent Presidential election with people coming out on all different sides of the issue - we never forget the people sitting around us are people.  We laugh a lot, too, which helps keep the tension to a minimum.

When I was a wee seminarian, I marveled at the way we invested so much in our in-class discussions.  One's religious beliefs are more than just a set of ideations to which we adhere; they are part of our identity.  Finding oneself immersed in a situation in which there are others who not only don't share the same set of beliefs and values, but are quite willing to dismiss them out of hand becomes more than intellectual back-and-forth.  It is, in the most infuriating way imaginable, a personal attack.  The most difficult trick to acquire if one is going to make it through the experience is skin thick enough to hear others tell you how wrong you are.

Because the local church is a place where people not only have a variety of agendas but a deep personal investment in time, energy, and money in the workings of the organization, disagreements over the most trivial things can become sources of deep division, personal animosity, and interpersonal conflict.  The trick, like in seminary, is to distance oneself from that investment a bit.  Be willing to speak one's mind; be willing to listen and grant the benefit of the doubt to others who do so, as well.

This is what we do in Pushing The Envelope.  At the end of the night, there is no animosity, just a small group of people who recognize our differences, and the fact that those differences do not mean the impossibility of remaining in relationship with one another.  We could do worse as a church or political commonwealth if we emulated what our small group does the fourth Tuesday night of each month.  So, to the group at Pushing The Envelope, I thank you for keeping alive the thought that we can indeed live with differences because those differences don't define who we are and how we relate to one another.

Virtual Tin Cup

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