Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Talking About Jesus, part 1: the powers and perils of naming

I've always been a Christian--that is, my relationship with God has been interpreted and enfleshed through Christian scripture, practice and community, with an emphasis on Jesus.  In the years when I worshipped with unprogrammed Friends my experience of God and the understandings and practices that engendered remained fairly constant, but we didn't use Jesus' name regularly and frequently as a group.  Now, while I still practice Quaker worship daily at home, my Sunday worship is with a little nondenominational church where we talk and sing a lot about Jesus.  I find a gift and a challenge in this naming.
Some of my Christian friends speak of the importance of naming the God we serve as Jesus, reminding ourselves and others of the particular challenge, peace and guidance found in Jesus' life and teaching.  Some parts of my relationship with God are most readily and precisely described through Jesus-language.  Some other Christian friends and some friends from other faith traditions speak of the dangers of using Jesus-language in a world where so much harm has been done by people who claimed to worship and follow Jesus.  I think all my friends are articulating important truths.  I am trying to find my way between them.

This post is about the challenges of talking about Jesus in groups that include non-Christians.  The next one will be about trying to talk about Jesus with fellow Christians without getting stuck in assumptions, and the one after that will be about my own relationship with/understanding of/attempt to follow Jesus thus far.
Years ago I brought a message about my experiences with Jesus-following, economic justice and integrity to a Quaker gathering.  I was told afterward that some people were upset with me.  I invited those people to meet with me.  Some did.  I expected them to have problems with my economic message.  Instead they felt hurt because I had reminded them of Christians they knew who spoke against or violently mistreated Jews or gays and lesbians.  They agreed that my message had not discussed Judaism, non-Christian religions, sexual ethics or sexual orientation, but I had used Jesus' name and had spoken in tones of exhortation and that had reminded of something that had hurt them.  Some of them had assumed that I was trying to convert them. 
My reaction was split.  There was frustration: I found myself thinking "Quakerism is originally a Christian movement, many of us still are Christians, you don't have to be what we are but you do need to let us freely describe what we have known of God."  There was also sympathy and concern: I understood that these people had experienced deep hurt in their own lives and had seen harm done to people they loved, and that I had reawakened the memory of that hurt. I regretted that. 
I listened to their hurt.  I acknowledged that great harm has been done in the name of my religion and expressed sorrow over some of that harm having been done to them and their loved ones.  I told them that I had been describing my own faith journey, which does centrally involve Jesus, but that I was asking other people to integrate their lives with their religious beliefs, not to modify their God-language to match mine.  I tried, also, to point out that the tendency to attack People Who Aren't Like Us is fairly widely distributed across humanity, and shows up in many religions, races, classes, orientations and ideologies...that Christians are neither immune to it nor unusually prone to it, though I thought if Christians followed Jesus more faithfully, and if people of other faiths deepened their communion with God, however they name God, we would all be healed of this tendency.  

I see two challenges here: a psychological one and a philosophical one.  The psychological one has to do with responding to genuine painful experience that has prompted a distorted overgeneralization.  This doesn't happen only around religion.  Once a friend voiced vehement disapproval of same-sex couples adopting children.  I spoke to X about some women I knew who were very capable, caring, generous and faithful, and also married to each other.  X responded with a very painful personal story of same-gender child sexual abuse.  I listened and sympathized with the great harm that had been done to X and others whom X loved.  I also tried to point out that child abuse is a terrible thing which is done by some people of all sexual orientations, and that self-restraint and faithful, healthy love between adults are also possibilities open to people of all sexual orientations.  Another friend who was present shared a very painful personal story of cross-gender child sexual abuse.
         I left that conversation and the conversation at the Quaker gathering in considerable doubt about my response.  I thought that trying to make a counter-point might have seemed dismissive of the hurt my interlocutors were carrying.  I thought it wrong to respond in a way that they might take to suggest that I agreed that Christians or gay and lesbian people really are abuse-prone and should be avoided.  I still don't know what the right response would have been.  

Then there's the philosophical problem.  We humans have misused and desecrated many--perhaps all--of our names for the holy and the good.  We have used them to justify unjustifiable actions.  This is true of many names of God, but avoiding religious language does not avoid the problem.  A guest once spoke about talking about Love instead of God because God-language has such a problematic history.  I told her I didn't find Love any less problematic.  I'd heard the word 'love' used in troubling ways in the fantasy play of kids who'd been sexually abused. I'd heard "If you really loved me, you would.." used to manipulate people destructively. "But that's not really love, that makes people behave like that," she said.  "No, and it's not really God who makes people abuse each other, either," I said.  It's not just God and love, either.  Most of us can probably think of atrocities and injustices which have been committed in the name of truth, justice, freedom, peace….
So when we use these good words they are subject to ambiguity, and they trigger pain and fear in some people.  But I think there are at least two good reasons for continuing to use them.
One is reclamation.  If we don't use these good words when we are trying to be sensitive to our neighbors, we abandon these words to thoughtless use, and the stigma and the hurt around them deepen.  If we use them carefully, lovingly, humbly, we may make it possible for some people to see the goodness in them.  (Pope Francis seems to have done this for some people's understanding of Catholic, or general Christian, language and practice.  I am very grateful.) Using them in this way we are reminded of the 'great cloud of witnesses', of all the people down through time who have invoked these good words as they healed sick people, taught children, reconciled enemies, forgave persecutors, cared for the earth, loved God and their neighbors.
The other is focus. If we don't use these good words an essential part of our lives and souls remains mute. If this muteness was part of a general context of silence it might have a different kind of strength.  In a very talkative society, we're apt to think largely about what we talk about, and if we refrain from talking about what is essential and keep talking about peripherals our focus is apt to be skewed.

I have also had good conversations with people of different faiths and with people outside any formal religious tradition, in which I was able to name my experience of God and Jesus and to hear the other person's names for the sacred without tension.  I have been helped by contemplation of the experiences and principles we hold in common.  Sometimes the other person's different language and images have helped me to get a fresh and vivid look at truths which had become so familiar to me in my own tradition that I almost stopped noticing them.  Often the other people in these conversations also say they have experienced them as blessings.
It's not a matter of being nice and non-challenging.  I want and need to be held accountable as well as supported in my attempts to follow Jesus.  I think God sometimes requires us to speak hard truths.  If we duck this in an effort to preserve group tranquility our lives become shallow. I'm still trying to figure out how to speak in a way that is both bold and humble.  I have figured out a few things to start with:
I need to remember that we are members one of another--all of us, all the living creatures that God made.  When I speak of what is right and good I need to remember that that goodness is available to everyone, not only My People.  When I speak of what is wrong and harmful I need to acknowledge the roots of evil in my own people and my own heart, rather than denouncing evil Out There as though it had no part in me and mine.  
I need to remember that God is greater than any of our words, names, concepts, images or practices.  We are creatures and we need all those things to help us ground our little lives in the Life, but we must not mistake them for the Life entire.  I think there is a way of using particular language that can actually foster this recognition.  If I try always to speak in a way that I think everyone can hear and agree with, a way that doesn't leave out anyone's experience of the sacred, I become vague and anxious and I still am bound by the limits of my assumptions.  If I speak of Jesus--who for me is, among other things, the bearer of the human face of God, God born in us, broken in us, working in us, suffering in us, dying in us, raising us to new life--and if I remember as I speak that what I meet in Jesus is met by other people under other names, I am more able to enter into communion.

If any of you have made it to the end of this long post, I would appreciate hearing about your experience with using your God-language and hearing other people's, and hearing how you decide which names to use, when to speak and when to keep silent.

Link to part 2

Sunday, December 8, 2013


It's Advent again, the time of preparing the way for God.  There's a certain amount of delighted anticipation in this as I look at the ways in which the Kingdom of God is already with us and the ways in which I believe it will come.  There's also a certain amount of heavy lifting as I look again at the obstacles my own life puts in the way of God's kingdom being embodied on earth.   Most of those obstacles are old familiars like anxiety, carelessness, and participation in the consumer economy.  This year I also realized that I have been enmeshed in envy for some time. I am still figuring out what the root of that envy is and how I need to deal with it. I'd be glad for insights/suggestions/reading recommendations from other people who have dealt with this problem.
I used to think I wasn't envious, mainly because I didn't envy the things people assumed I would.  Some people who have boyfriends/husbands,official jobs or college degrees have earnestly reassured me that my lack of these things doesn't indicate any serious intrinsic defect on my part, and that someday I can also have those things.  I try to explain as nicely as possible that I really am not coveting what they have, that I am actually content with my life as it is.  I have casually envied people who seemed to fit completely inside their bodies, who moved with the grace and deftness I never learned, or people who had the sense of timing required to pull out smoothly into traffic or to tell a joke so that it actually sounded funny….but I've always been able to laugh at myself, or to remember that some things that come easy to me are hard for some other folks, and then to sit back and enjoy the other person's talents without making comparisons.
I deeply envy people who have qualities of character that I admire, strive for and repeatedly fail to achieve.  The courage and poise to face down snarling dogs or belligerent people and back them off so that they do and suffer no harm.  The wisdom to be silent when silence is called for, and then to speak only the necessary, true and healing word.  The confidence to state a conviction, an opinion or a preference simply and clearly without looking around to see what other people think of it.  The maturity, or humility, or confidence--I don't even know what it is--to delight in other people's good qualities without making comparisons, without feeling inferior or resentful.  
I am grateful for the people who possess these qualities.  I am glad to be in a world and in a community that includes such people. I wish to support those people in whatever ways I can. In my considered opinion all these statements are true.  In graced times I feel them to be true. In other times I don't.
Sometimes I look at the goodness in them and perceive an indictment of my own lacks.  When they show their goodness, or when other people describe it, my stomach churns.  Sometimes I imagine people silently thinking about how much more cowardly, inattentive, insecure and competitive I am.  Sometimes I realize that they aren't thinking of it in those terms at all, that they're not competing, that they're not preoccupied with my strengths or defects. This ought to be a relief, but in graceless times it isn't; it just makes it feel that much worse.  I think You have this wonderful thing that I lack, that I would love to have, and you don't even see that you have it. You assume that everybody has it, or is supposed to have it.  If you knew I didn't have it, what would you think of me?...and I am afraid.  Or I think, You've beaten me by a mile and you weren't even trying, you didn't even notice me, that's how much better you are… and I am resentful. 
As with anxiety, the biggest hurdle in dealing with envy seems to be acknowledging that it's there and looking at it instead of hiding from it.  I've managed that part, with help from some books and some friends.  Now that I'm paying attention, I think that envy, like most of my unfortunate habits and character traits, is composed of a basically healthy longing combined with a lie / distortion that causes me to pursue what I long for in the wrong way.  I'm still working on bringing both into focus.  
One good root of moral envy is my wish to make the world better.  I am grateful for the goodness around and within us.  I am also aware of the gap between what is and what should be--in our dealings with each other, in our use of the living world, in our faithfulness to Spirit. I know that I am partly responsible for that gap, and I want to close it.  I expect myself to grow in integrity and love and faithfulness, and to do as little harm as possible.  That's good, as far as it goes. However, it's easily warped by egotism. I grew up singing "Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me."  I'm not sure when there began to be a twist in my understanding of the words--when 'let it begin with me' came to mean not only 'let me be a peacemaker' but 'let me be the first, best peacemaker'. Not that I ever said that explicitly, because it would have sounded childish and ridiculous.  (At least, not on purpose.  Once while singing the Prayer of St. Francis, the part in the bridge that begins "O Master, grant that I may never seek so much to be consoled as to console…" I realized that I had substituted "control" for "console."  This gave me pause for thought.) 
Another good root is my awareness of what I've been given.  I grew up without physical fear or material want, with love and encouragement and good nourishment for mind, body and soul.  I have a healthy body and a capacious though capricious mind.  These things can make it easier for me to love and work effectively.  Remembering these things can make it harder for me to weasel out of doing what needs to be done. This remembrance can warp into an unhelpful sense of guilt and envy toward those who have had harder lives than mine and who show strengths of character which I lack.  I begin by berating myself for not living up to them and end up by resenting them.  
Some kind friends have tried to help me by pointing out my strengths.  That is sweet, but not necessarily helpful.  I know and enjoy many things I am good at, physically, mentally and morally.  But when I try to balance them as credits against the debits I see in my character the accounting becomes increasingly frantic and confused.
I think my way to healing is to live further into a truth that in some sense I have always known: that at the root we're all one.  That has been clear to me experientially as long as I can remember, and I'm reminded of it whenever I quiet my distractions and return to the awareness of God's presence. Sometimes that knowledge has been a simple delight. It has consoled me when I felt lonely or feared that I couldn't really be of help to others.  Sometimes that knowledge has been challenging.  When I have been angry with or disappointed in another group of people, when I would have liked to separate myself from them and think that I would never do what they did, I have been reminded that we are one in the root, that I also am capable of doing what they did--and, often, have done destructive things that looked less dramatic but arose from the same motivation that I suspect in them. 
I need to remember this same truth in the presence of people whom I admire and envy.  I need to remember that my goodness does not in any way compete with theirs. We are all in the same struggle.  We share the capacity for greed, fear and falsehood, and we can exacerbate these in one another.  We also share the capacity for love, courage and truth, and whenever we choose these we strengthen ourselves and one another. Whatever virtues come easily to anyone strengthen us all--and so do the virtues we come into only by hard striving, with much falling down and getting up again.
I know that on one level--it's quite obvious. If I were able to work that knowledge all the way into my breath and my bones, I think I wouldn't envy any more.  For now I'll try to use the gnawings of envy as signals to remind me of the truth. I suppose living as if the Truth was true is somewhat like the kingdom of God. It's here already, always; and it's not here yet.