hate – a family value?

Yesterday morning, I officiated at a sunrise wedding on the banks of the Tidal Basin. This afternoon, I officiated at a wedding in St. Mark’s historic nave. Tomorrow, I’ll join the throng at a wedding and offer a grace before the reception meal. The air is filled with love and family.

whoever does not hate...Earlier this morning, as a part of my daily devotions, I was led, I pray not perversely, but rather in the spirit of taking up a challenge, to look afresh at Jesus’ words: “Whoever does not hate father and mother, wife (to which I add, given my egalitarian streak, husband or partner) and children, brothers and sisters, even life itself cannot be my disciple.”

I believe that love (described by Apostle Paul as, “patient and kind, not jealous or boastful, arrogant or rude, that bears, believes, hopes, and endures all things”) is the fundamental family value. However, Jesus’ words, sticking in my craw and hard to swallow, suggest that hate might be one, too.

Seeking comfort in the original text, the Greek word translated “hate” (miseō) can mean “to love less.” Ah, a blessed bit of ambiguous wiggle-room! When anything clashes with my discipleship, I need not hate it, just love it less. That I can do!

But my comfort is short-lived, for “hating” or “loving less” isn’t about attitude, but action. It’s not how I feel, but what I do. “Paul,” I hear Jesus saying, “please, feel whatever you like, but when a conflict arises between anything else and your discipleship, you must choose me.” And when the “anything else” is family, the difficulty deepens. For though I find within my formative years the roots of some of my abiding woundedness and ongoing soul-deep wrestling, family, nevertheless, both symbolically and existentially, is the ground of my being, the foundation of my history, and a guide to my destiny.

As I ponder all this, I perceive Jesus’ admonition as a beacon illuminating a tension between what I value (where I find my selfhood, my identity and security) symbolized by family and a larger life beyond the comfortable bounds of my self symbolized by discipleship. This tension, more deeply, exists between my life as shaped by my values and my discipleship that constantly calls into question my values, which always inherently are self-oriented. Living amid this tension, I need to hold on to what I value lest I lose my sense of who I am and I need to hold on to Jesus who bids I follow him lest I lose my sense of who I am to become.

For me, it’s about meaning, about making sense of my life. I can find it in my closest, dearest relationships of family. I also can find it outside of me in moments when life’s mystery overwhelms me. Moments when I sense something far greater than (or at least as real as) anything I know. To wit, there is meaning in who I know myself to be and in what I wish I was, but am not yet, revealed in moments of mystery when the difference between my real and ideal selves comes to light. To follow Jesus is to live holding on to the real and reaching for the ideal, always being prepared to hate, to love less, to relinquish the real that the ideal may become real.

This, at least, is what I think…today.

a conversation about values

We sat at the bar, sipping glasses of wine, engaged in animated conversation about a variety of subjects – the Middle East, Ukraine, West Africa and the Ebola crisis, and (I was surprised, for race is a preeminently hotwire issue) Michael Brown’s death and the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. It was the lively exchange that people who first meet often engage; strangers serendipitously pulling up at the next stool, broaching otherwise unmentionable subjects, saying things that in polite company, when the stakes of remaining in good relation are higher, one might not say.

One thing we didn’t discuss. Yet. On reflection, the fairly elastic boundary of a strangers’ conversation has limits.

“Clarence” was in town “up from mid-state”, having come to the medical center with his 80 year old mother who was diagnosed with cancer of the eye. Ocular melanoma. “Never heard of it”, he exclaimed. With the surgery performed and deemed successful, Clarence and his mother were heading home the next day. We hoisted our glasses in thanksgiving. I offered “Godspeed on your journey home.”

He motioned to the bartender. “Pour me and my friend another glass of wine.” He asked, “What do you do?” Slowly, telling him I was an Episcopal priest, I quickly waited for the conversation to change. (It usually does when the subject of religion is raised as people tend to react from the depths of their pleasant or unpleasant experiences of the institutional church.)

“Episcopal Church, huh? Y’all pretty liberal. Right?”

“Yes.” I smiled slightly, not sure of the next turn.

“What do you think we ought to do about those children coming up our way from south of our borders?”

agree-don't agreeHis question was direct, but his tone wasn’t harsh. “I think we should find every way for them to have a home in America.”

His countenance sagged. He pursed his lips, shrugging his shoulders. Then he said, “You seem to be good people, and people are entitled to their views. But I’m not for it. At all.”

I had choices. Change the subject. Stop talking altogether. Thank him for the glass of wine and make my exit. Or continue the conversation. But how? I felt probing the issue of how I was for and he was against would be fruitless. Our previously lively conversation might remain so, but less convivial.

“I have my views,” I offered, “but I never assume I’m right. I try to listen to others.”

“That’s good. I like that. So many people just hunker down and don’t budge.”

I felt a rush of hopefulness that we might avoid the crash of the end of a conversation after a clash of viewpoints.

“You know,” he added, “there’s a difference between being right and being correct. Right is like when the boss is right. The boss has the right to set rules. Whether it’s correct, meaning good for everybody, is something else.”

“Fair enough”, I said. “However, when I spoke of right, I was referring to truth. When I take a position, though I may believe it, I don’t assume that I have all truth. Even when our views differ, you have a piece of the truth that I need to hear.”

“Another good point,” he said. “But, you know, there are three kinds of truth. One, when I look you in the eye and tell you what’s true and you don’t believe it. Two, when I look you in the eye and tell you a lie and you believe it. And three, when I look you in the eye and tell you a lie and you don’t believe it because you already know what’s true.”

I couldn’t follow the line of logic. Who is the speaker of the truth or the lie? Who is the listener?

With a broad smile, he said, “Like I say, people can believe whatever they want. People also can find their own ways to hell.”

Whimsically stated, his words had a ring of truth. His truth. I believed that he believed what he had said. I smiled, too, wanly, for, as my truth was decidedly different from his, I sensed that the conversation was over.

values – a final word (for now)

understandingIn wondering about my strategy for responding to those whose values conflict with what I hold dear, I reaffirm my belief in a God who beholds all as equal. I also acknowledge afresh my allegiance to Jesus who commands that I never seek an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth and that I turn the other cheek. In this, I hear his call that I, in every circumstance (save that of mortal danger) to whatever extent possible, try to understand “the other”, who, as my equal, desires, deserves love and justice.

What does it look like to love “the other” justly? Asked another way, when I am just loving “the other” what am I doing?

Here, I dust off Principles of Engagement of “The Other”. In early 2007, reflecting on my then concluded sabbatical, I described (as I mentioned in my July 26 blog, Empathy Matters) “values or attitudes that I believed essential in any encounter with anyone who differs from me in any way.”

Numbering nine, they are…

Empathy. Feeling in (not sympathetically with) the other. Attempting to see, hear, think, feel another’s experiences; identifying (not necessarily agreeing) with the other.

Personal encounter. Meeting, conversing, and listening. Sharing stories (not the doctrines or dogmas) of one’s life experiences that reveal who one is and how one perceives reality.

Civility. Being kind to promote safety that encourages vulnerability; for the aim of sharing stories is mutual understanding (not seeking fallacies in another’s life-narrative so to win an argument).

Commonality. Searching for shared elements in another’s experience; being prepared to recognize and acknowledge similitude as well as difference.

Suspension of judgment. Listening intently sans the filters of one’s worldview, history and memory, native instinct and insight, or established patterns of discernment (impossible to do fully, but attainable in measures) so to perceive another’s story in the language of her/his reality.

Inevitability of conflict. Acknowledging that personal encounter with “the other” heralds the discovery of difference. Such awareness can promote preparedness for engaging conflict creatively – recognizing it as unremarkable and responding with calm acceptance, using it as a lens to see one’s self through another’s eyes.

Limitations of conversation. Understanding that some differences are irresolvable, particularly those that involve contrary truth claims between faith traditions, ethical mores, or belief systems.

Self-examination. Being able and willing to be self-critical, grounded in the awareness that one does not possess all or the truth, but only one’s own truth, sense of things, and perception of reality.

Religion. Recognizing that religion (pertaining to life’s meaning and destiny) is the root of many differences that arise in encounter with another. In this awareness, being able to look underneath the presenting issues or concepts of the differences to behold the heart of the matter, generally pointing to some aspect of our common humanity.

Having dusted off my principles, I pledge anew to practice them. They constitute my strategy for engaging, wherever and whenever mutually possible, anyone opposite from where I stand.

values – from price to peril to praxis

I’ve been ruminating about values. Their nature, what they are. Their utility, what they do for us. The price we pay for having them in accountability for ourselves and to others. The peril we may encounter when confronted by others whose beliefs stand in stark contrast to ours. I then offered, from my perspective, one glaring example.

Regarding this last point, as I wonder about how I might respond, I begin where always I must. I am a Christian, a follower of the Jesus of love and justice, unconditional benevolence and fairness toward all. The Jesus who teaches, “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say…if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…You have heard it said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven who makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matthew 5.38, 39b, 43-45)

Difficult, very difficult to do. When offended or outraged, hurt or harmed, I tend to react in my inexpungibly native humanness, which finds lex talionis or law of retaliation appealing. How satisfying it feels (and in terms of the logic of retributive parity, how reasonable, even justifiable it is) when struck to strike back, when having had my eye or tooth taken, whether literally or metaphorically, to take an eye or tooth in return. (Although to follow this precept to its fullest would yield a world of battered, blind, and toothless peoples!) Turning the other cheek seems nonsensical and, depending on the gravity of the circumstance, suicidal. In this, though, I am intrigued by the counsel of Walter Wink, who, in his book Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, views cheek-turning as a nonviolent, though decidedly willful way to subvert the accustomed dynamics of power. In Jesus’ right-hand dominant day, Wink avers, striking someone’s right cheek with the back of one’s hand was an assertive act of authority; not so much meant to injure, but to insult. If the ill-treated person then turned the head to the right, exposing the left cheek, the one who struck the blow was faced with having to follow with a slap using the palm of an open right hand, something only done to an equal. Hence, by turning the other cheek the offended person was demanding equality.

ScalesThis principle of equality or human equivalence – that in the sight of the God who, with divine impartiality, bestows sun and rain upon all, we, regardless of worldly station, are alike in the dignity of our creation – is at the heart of how I respond when I find another’s values and beliefs, so divergent from mine, offensive.

More to come…

values’ peril – 1 example

Values, our core beliefs, the lenses through which we behold ourselves and our world, help us to make sense of our existence, to constitute what we call reality. Our values come with the costs of our necessity in attempting to act in accord with what we profess to believe and our accountability to all with whom we are in relationship. They also can pose a peril whenever we come in contact with another or others whose views of life and the world, diverging so greatly from ours, assault our sensibilities. When (not if) that happens, what to do?

During a summer-long respite, save for soul-deep, hand-wringing sorrow in response to warring and killing in the Middle East, for much of the time, I have been enveloped by a pleasant spirit, an irenic oasis of contentment. Enjoying my life. Spending that idealized “quality time” with my wife. Socializing with friends. For hours at a time, engaging enthusiastically in my most loved hobby, reading, mostly fiction, some history, and a bit of theology…

billboard - World Missionary Church, Mexico City

Then, Robert, my brother in law, a New York-based operatic lyric tenor (whose voice I shamelessly have coveted for years!), sent me this picture of a church billboard in Harlem.

I was stunned. I am not naïve. I am not surprised that one – whether person or people, community or coterie – could harbor such views. Still, as a Christian, nearing retirement from a nearly 40-year career of progressive, inclusive ministry, and, long before, from the time I stood at my sainted Baptist grandmother’s knee, an avid Bible student and a follower of a Jesus of unconditional love and justice for all, I am dumbfounded by any defamatory declaration. That this church is entitled to embrace and espouse its values, I dare not gainsay. However, I find abhorrent any proclamation of one’s views that vilifies, demonizes another.

This photograph has been as flint striking the steel of my beliefs setting my mind and heart ablaze in reflection. More to come…

values – from price to peril

Values, our core beliefs, are essential to living with purpose. They come with the costs of obligating us, to use a biblical metaphor, to practice what we preach that we may be true to ourselves and accountable to those with whom we are in relationship.

Values, though, bear not only a price, but also peril. There are moments when the discomfort of disappointing myself and others when I fail to fulfill what I profess, when the works of my life belie the words from my lips, pales in comparison to the risk inherent in encountering another whose principles are oppositional, even hostile. This summer’s surfeit of warring in many parts of our global community is a present reminder writ large of the sorrowful truth of this reality.

However, I am blessed to live in the land where, in our Declaration of Independence, we enshrine as our common human birthright “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Despite, over time, how variously these privileges have been realized by the different peoples within our American family, I daily am not challenged, confronted, or called to account by a threat that presages suffering, much less dying for what I believe.

disagreeStill, in this star-spangled “land of the free and home of the brave” where we value the liberty to believe what we will and, within abundantly wide boundaries, to express our convictions how we will, we, in the course and conduct of our lives, constantly come in contact with others (“the other”) who hold as sacred diametrically different views. What do I do…what do you do when in the midst of such potentially perilous moments? What is my, your strategy to cope with dissimilarities that assault my, your heartfelt sensibilities and soul-deep sensitivities?

the price of values – redux

belIeveIn my previous blog-post, the price of values, I spoke of the attendant costs whenever I say, “I believe…” – essentially my obligation to live in accord with my principles and my making myself accountable to all those with whom I share them. (And, depending on my faithfulness or lack, the price I pay in disappointing myself and others could prove small or great.)

There is another primary cost. Identifying values is self-limiting. When I profess one tenet as significant I cannot affirm another (say, its opposite). This self-imposed inherent constraint, however, reveals, also innately, another nuance of freedom. In the face of competing ideologies and conflicting interests in the world and, doubtless, at times, within myself, to say, “I believe…” allows me to stand somewhere, thus liberating me from the folly of imagining that I can be (or try to be) everywhere at once.

Values. The subject I have chosen (or that has chosen me) for my late-summer musing. More to come…