Posts tagged ‘Christopher L. Webber’

Part 3: Lessons Learned

NOTE: This is part three of a five-part series about my faith journey over the last few years. You can find the first two parts here and here.

As I began to learn more about the Episcopal Church, I noticed that if I ever casually mentioned it to anyone who wasn’t Episcopalian, I’d hear all about how it was “Catholic lite.” But the more I read, the more I found the Episcopal tradition to be quite different from Catholicism. It seemed that most people just saw the collars, heard some words, and saw the worship style and assumed it was the same. They took a look at the cover of the book without bothering to read it. I, however, saw meaningful differences. But I digress.

I want to share some of the impactful things I learned through a couple of books, beginning with Welcome to the Episcopal Church by Christopher L. Webber. On the Bible:

“The Bible is not a set of instructions that can give us simple answers to all questions or a text with which to prove points. In the first place, the guidance the Bible gives was provided for a society very different from ours and still in the early stages of growing in knowledge of God’s love.

In the second place, any set of words is open to various interpretations…God, being ultimately responsible for both the text of the Bible and the nature of human beings, presumably understood that in creating both and made allowances. The authority of the Bible is not that of a dictator or rule book…If God had wanted us to have a rule book, surely a better one could have been provided than this. The Bible is something quite different; we go to it not to find specific words to answer our questions but to find the Word who created us and knows our need before we ask.”

On worship and theology:

“Worship for example, is inclusive, not exclusive, while theology, by its nature, excludes. Theology is concerned with defining issues and boundaries, with saying we believe this and not that. Worship, on the other hand, like great music and art, can be appreciated on many levels and in many ways. Art, music, and worship are difficult to define in words and it would be difficult to say that someone whose appreciation is different from ours is wrong. Worship, then, has the ability to unite, to draw us in and draw us together…

Theology relies on language in its attempt to understand religious experience, and those who worship God know how difficult it is to put that experience into words. God is always beyond our definitions.”

On the importance of reason, in addition to scripture and tradition:

“No matter how much some Christians may question reliance on human reason, they cannot avoid using their minds to do so. Neither Scripture nor tradition provides clear and certain answers to all questions; at some point, there is no way to decide among possible interpretations except through the use of the human mind.”

On “sin:”

“The attempt to identify sin with some outward enemy can also lead to such phenomena as racism, homophobia…and a negative approach to the world in general…sin lies in the misuse of good things rather than in the things themselves. The purpose of the spiritual life is to seek God’s glory rather than simply avoid sin. Nature has an inherent goodness that can be perfected by grace.”

On differences of opinions within the Church:

“Unity is not the same thing as uniformity, nor can it be imposed from above…Uniformity of opinion and vision might be more comfortable to some, but unity is made up of diversity. It is precisely in this clash of opinions and the debating of different visions that the mission of the church is clarified. A church without controversy would be a dead church.” 

I also read Episcopal Questions, Episcopal Answers by Ian S. Markham & C.K. Robertson. Here are some of my favorite parts, the first being about doubt and certainty:

“It is often said that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. When we think about God, we do so from the vantage point of humans. We are small entities in a vast universe; we are trying to work out what the source and creator of the universe is like. We should approach this project with some humility. Our vantage point does not permit certainty. We are called to think, struggle, and discern the truth about God and God’s relations with the world…we are all on a journey of faith. This journey will have many twists and turns. Sometimes our sense and experience of God will be strong; at other times, God will seem to be further away.”

On the inherent worth of others:

“We are made in the ‘image of God’ — often referred to in the Latin as ‘Imago Dei.’ Every person is special. It means that we are all required to treat people with dignity. They are extraordinary creations of infinite worth.” 

On the importance of social justice:

“If you had to identify the single most important biblical theme, then I think any fair observer would say ‘social justice.’ It is the primary theme of the Gospel (Jesus never mentions homosexuality, but talks repeatedly about the dangers of riches and the importance of the poor); it is the major theme of the prophets in the Old Testament (just look at Isaiah, Amos, and Micah); and it is a central characteristic of the early church (see Acts 4:33-35)…this commitment is firmly embedded in Scripture. The Church is called to be an agent of change in society.”

On scripture:

“It is not enough to read a verse of Scripture on its own, divorced from its setting in the larger passage. Sadly, there have been many times in the history of Christianity when people have wrenched a verse from its context and used it to justify otherwise deplorable acts such as slavery, racism, even crusades and inquisitions. Even in less extreme situations, it is far too easy either to take a verse that supports our own biases or to react against a too-easy fundamentalist approach by dismissing all of Scripture as irrelevant. No, we choose to do the harder work. This means considering the passage surrounding a particular verse.

…While affirming the way that Christians before us have comprehended the Word of God in relation to their time and place, we must also ask what God might be saying to us now in our own context…God can do a new thing if we are willing to let go of our own presuppositions and dare to approach both Scripture and our own situation with fresh eyes.

…Everyone looks at the Scriptures through a lens of some kind.”

On diversity within the church, including diversity of opinion:

“The work of discerning ‘what is of God’ is hard. We need the range of perspectives. We appreciate the wisdom of those who push the question: What is the biblical basis of this or that innovation? We appreciate the insight of those who push the question: How can we further the work of justice in today’s society? Naturally, this can look messy at times. If you look at the church in Corinth and read behind Paul’s letters to that congregation, then you will see messy is the norm. And messy can be good. We would rather all stay together in conversation than keep aspiring for a purity where other voices are excluded.”

On the Bible and the “Word of God:”

“For the Episcopal Church, Jesus is the primary Word of God. As we shall see later, the Bible is the Word of God because it points to the primary Word, which is Jesus. It is from the Incarnation that we learn what God is like. It is the primary disclosure of the nature of God to humanity.”

That is a lot to digest, I know. And it’s only the beginning. Next, I’ll talk more about what I’ve learned, specifically by actually [gasp] regularly attending services.

The Art of Conversation

I think a lot about communication. It comes naturally to me. But communication is important to all of us. Our lives revolve around how we communicate, with ourselves and others. Most recently, however, I’ve been focused on what I’ll call compassionate communication: how to effectively communicate in a way that shows compassion for all involved.

I have lots of opinions. We all do. We all have our own life experiences which shape these opinions. And, as if that’s not messy enough, we’re all imperfect. So how do we effectively communicate with each other — not at each other or around each other or past each other, but with each other?

We have to be quiet and listen.

We can’t communicate effectively or compassionately if we don’t make an effort to understand each other, which happens by listening. This is why social media communication sometimes fails so miserably. We are complicated people discussing complicated issues that tend to be far more nuanced than we sometimes like to admit. Many times, we need to be able to actually hear each other. Even better, we need to see each other. We need to remember that the person on the other side of the conversation is a human just like us. In many cases, the people we are communicating with are our friends and family. If we have any chance of communicating effectively, especially via social media, we must be willing to be quiet and listen to each other.

We have to start from a place of mutual respect.

Can I just admit this is extraordinarily difficult to do sometimes? And if you’re honest with yourself, I bet you’d agree. I live in a world in which my very equality is regularly questioned in my own community. In fact, I don’t even have the same rights as others in my community and there are still people, most of them who say they’re Christians just like me, actively trying to deny me this equality. It is incredibly difficult to think of these people as anything other than mean, fearful, ignorant people. It’s messy. And even when I do remember that these people are also beloved Children of God (regardless of their faith or lack of it), and that we should strive to love everyone, it’s not something I can permanently sustain. It’s something I must regularly work to do. But if I’m asking them to respect me, I must be willing to offer them the same respect, which leads me to my next point.

We must be willing to treat others as we would like to be treated.

I know — what a cliche. But this one is true. First of all, it’s the right thing to do. It helps stop us from being hypocritical. And let’s be honest: we all love to call someone out for hypocrisy, don’t we? And we’re all hypocrites at times, aren’t we? But beyond it being the right thing to do, you’re never going to get your point across to someone who disagrees with you or doesn’t understand you if you don’t even treat them the way you expect them to treat you.

We must be prepared to show grace.

As a gay man, especially one who now (again) identifies as a Christian — a word that understandably tends to carry a boatload of assumptions, I would get absolutely nowhere with many people if I just shut down a conversation every time someone asked me something that was inappropriate or offensive.

I am not saying that one should endure a continued barrage of angry, fear-filled hate speech and continue to be around the person spewing it. I’m also not saying the marginalized bear the full burden of explaining ourselves to others. What I am saying is that when we’re engaging in thoughtful conversations with folks, we should try our best to extend grace to one another.

I’ve been asked so many uncomfortable, insensitive questions about my sexual orientation. If you’re in a minority group or a group that’s very often misunderstood, chances are you know what I’m talking about. 

Perhaps you’ve even asked someone these sorts of questions. If I’m honest, in my effort to learn more about others and learn how I can advocate on their behalf, I think I have. And anytime anyone has ever patiently pointed it out to me, I’ve been so thankful to them for doing so, so that I can learn from the experience. One’s motives behind the questions make a difference, at least to me. If you’re asking to truly better understand me and people like me, I’m much more likely to patiently answer your questions. Regardless, we need to have more grace in our conversations.

We have to hold each other accountable.

Once we establish that we are willing to listen, respect one another, treat each other as we’d like to be treated, and prepare ourselves to extend grace to one another — once we do all that, we are better equipped to effectively hold each other accountable.

I can’t say this enough: humans are not perfect. Often, we slip up. When we do, we need help from friends who will hold us accountable. But more than that, we also need to call out things like racism, bigotry, and homophobia when we see them. We can do this while still listening, showing respect, following the Golden Rule, and showing grace. It’s a challenge — trust me, I struggle with it regularly — but it’s optimal.

So why don’t we do all of this? Why is it so difficult? Well, that’s a loaded question with many reasons. But let me explain why I think it’s sometimes difficult for me.

I want to avoid unnecessary stress and controversy.

I can handle stress. Successfully handling stressful situations has always been part of my job, regardless of the industry. I have even frequently enjoyed these moments. But a key to effectively handling stress, for me at least, is minimizing unnecessary stress as much as possible. Sometimes, stress is good and needed. But sometimes, it’s definitely not. It’s all about balance.

So when I’m faced with a decision about whether or not to engage in communication with someone on some issue, I factor in how much stress it may cause and if it’s worth it. That’s a reasonable thing to do, but more often I’m realizing that it’s important to have important conversations, regardless of the stress it may cause.

I want to avoid tension and being in uncomfortable situations.

This is especially true for me in person. But tension can be good. Martin Luther King, Jr. argued for the benefits and importance of tension in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail:”

“I must confess that I am not afraid of the word ‘tension.’ I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.”

Did you catch that? Tension isn’t only important, it’s necessary for growth. Dang.

We find similar themes in Christianity, with tension and complexity in the Bible itself and in issues people struggle with. As Christopher L. Webber puts it:

“Uniformity of opinion and vision might be more comfortable to some, but unity is made up of diversity. It is precisely in this clash of opinions and the debating of different visions that the mission of the church is clarified. A church without controversy would be a dead church.”

Dang.

In order to have effective conversations, we must be willing to embrace tension and get out of our comfort zones. Honestly, you and I probably both know some of our most meaningful learning experiences have been in trying, tense, and uncomfortable times, yet we sometimes still fear them. But the more we do it, the easier and more comfortable it becomes.

I fear imperfection.

Yep. The guy who talks about how imperfect we all are is the same guy who has this nagging need to try to be perfect, even though he realizes this is unrealistic. Welcome to my mind.

The reason this sometimes holds me back from conversations is that I worry what I’ll say will hurt more than help. I worry that I won’t have the right words or will have the wrong tone. Also, the idea of people thinking I speak on behalf of an entire group, regardless of the group, adds enormous pressure. And while maybe I tend to thrive under pressure, my mind doesn’t seem to care. But hey — realizing this is the first step to moving past it, right?

I like to be liked.

There. I said it. If you know me, you’re probably all like, “Um, duh. That’s obvious.” But here’s the thing: when I think about why I like to be liked, my mind almost immediately goes back to the things I listed above — I want to avoid unnecessary stress and controversy and I want to avoid tense, uncomfortable situations.

But I also want to be approachable, especially for friends and family. I want to be a resource — someone who they know will listen to them. While I’m certainly unafraid to take positions and have opinions, I do often try to find common ground. And that’s not a bad thing as long as I’m not denying myself, denying others, and avoiding what’s right in an unrealistic effort to make all people feel comfortable. And I know I do that, especially in person.

For example, if I’m around family or even in public with my boyfriend, I’m less likely to show him any form of overt affection. I’ll tell myself that I’m not a huge fan of PDA and wouldn’t be if I were straight either. But is that true? How do I know that’s true when I’ve been conditioned for literally my entire life to think that being gay and showing any form of romantic affection to someone of the same sex is wrong? Two things drive this thought process: fear and wanting to make others comfortable.

This is also something I’m working on — not just the PDA thing — all of it. While certain times may call for neutrality, in many cases it’s better in the long run to stand firm in who and how you are, letting the chips fall where they may. But I think you must also keep the Golden Rule in mind, as well as the idea that we should strive to show love and kindness to one another. 

So what’s the answer here? How do we communicate effectively while staying true to who we are and not condoning dangerous, damaging rhetoric? How do we have conversations with people who are not playing by the same “rules,” so-to-speak? Why should we have to play by those rules if they aren’t? Should we even try?

As usual, I think the answer is somewhere in the middle — in a gray area. And I think it depends on the situation. Like most things in life, it’s complex. And if I had one perfect answer, I think I’d be a much more popular person, probably with a few extra bucks in my bank account, too.

Most of life’s big questions don’t have definite ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers. It’s messier than that. But there can be beauty in  difficult answers. To reference Christopher L. Webber again, a “middle way” can “achieve a comprehensiveness or breadth of approach that could draw wisdom from every side and include the insights of others.”

While Webber is talking about Christianity, particularly Episcopalianism here, I think it holds true in general, as well. For so many issues, the best answer lies somewhere in the middle — in a gray area. Why? Well, people are diverse and complex. Many issues are, too.

Certainly, there are issues that are either just right or wrong, and we must not be silent when we hear things like hate speech. That’s when holding each other accountable comes in. But how do we know what’s right and wrong?

Jesus tells us we can judge a tree by the fruit it bears — a good tree cannot bear bad fruit and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. If one’s actions and rhetoric are bearing bad fruit — leading to negative outcomes — it is not good. If one’s actions and rhetoric are bearing good fruit — leading to positive outcomes — it is good. Using this method, we can better understand when it’s time to speak up. And when we do so, we must be prepared to be bold while also being mindful of the things that make a conversation most productive.

If we want to affect any change, if we want to learn and grow, if we want others to learn and grow, and if we want to fully live life, we must be willing to engage in difficult, messy, conversations. And we must be willing to do so with compassion, understanding, respect and grace. It’s easier said than done, but it’s worth a shot.

%d bloggers like this: