Wednesday, November 6, 2019

A Wedding and a Funeral in Trump Territory

Wade dancing with the bride.

I call it “Trump territory” rather than “Trump country” because I doubt any state wants to be characterized by how it voted in the last presidential election. Nor do its citizens. And “territory” sounds less permanent than “country,” suggesting things may change. And I am writing this post not to diminish Trump voters in Indiana and Louisiana or even my own state of Georgia, but to recognize we may share more values than pundits might admit.

I am writing this because when Wade and I visited Indiana for his mom’s memorial in September and Louisiana for our friend’s wedding in October, both held in picturesque rural chapels, we seemed to find the same welcoming people we enjoy in our own neighborhood and our own spiritual community here in Atlanta.

Now, we weren’t talking politics in either venue, but how people respond to a married gay male couple could be considered a sort of litmus test of values. And we seemed warmly received in our grief in Indiana and our celebration in Louisiana. What that says to me is that death and marriage are universally held as profound and important enough to, as they say in theater, “suspend our disbelief” in one another’s voting records and ideologies and, as they say in the church, “bear one another’s burdens and share each other’s joys.”

In a May visit to family and friends in California, one of my hosts was one of “those” puzzling Obama-Trump voters, but we had enough to talk about without pushing one another’s buttons over politics. As many of us anticipate family gatherings over Thanksgiving and Christmas, it helps to consider what we share than how we differ. Fox News does not need to share a turkey with MSNBC. If ceasefires can sometimes work in the Middle East, then they might work—if briefly—at our dinner tables.

My reading for both trips to Trump territory was Henri Nouwen’s Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. As I read the section on the movement from hostility to hospitality, tears came to my eyes. I was about to offer my morning prayers, but I realized my tears were my prayers.

My tears came from my youthful ideals that seem so unrealistic in our present political divisiveness. My first sermon in my home Presbyterian church as a college student was entitled “Conflict and Unity within the Church.” That congregation was so divided politically that the liberals sat on the left side of the sanctuary and the conservatives on the right! My sermon declared that maybe the church could be one place political sides could come together and have meaningful conversation.

Someone in the church sent a copy of my sermon to a newspaper columnist who wrote about it, doubting the possibility of what he called “an umbrella church.”

Off I went to seminary and bumped into Henri Nouwen, whose spirituality course in which I enrolled my first semester became the book Reaching Out. He said and wrote, “If we expect any salvation, redemption, healing and new life, the first thing we need is an open receptive place where something can happen to us. … To convert hostility into hospitality requires the creation of the friendly empty space where we can reach out to our fellow human beings and invite them to a new relationship.” (p 54)

“An open receptive place” to me is the very definition of sanctuary.

Regular readers know what store I place on the history of how I came by a book. A Roman Catholic priest who has remained a lifelong friend gave me his copy of Reaching Out in the mid-70s. The copy I’ve currently been reading is the one I gave my mother, writing inside the cover, “To Mom, What Henri shared with me I now share with you—with much love, Chris.”

Because it speaks to our current divisiveness, I’ve decided to use Reaching Out as the text for “An Open Receptive Place,” a new course on Henri I’ve been invited to lead for Columbia Seminary’s spiritual formation program September 17-20, 2020.

Life can teach us that although the events of the day are out of our hands, they should never be out of our hearts, that instead of becoming bitter our lives can yield to the wisdom that only from the heart a creative response can come forth.

If any criticism can be made of the sixties, it is not that protest was meaningless but that it was not deep enough, in the sense that it was not rooted in the solitude of the heart. When only our minds and hands work together we quickly become dependent on the results of our actions and tend to give up when they do not materialize. In the solitude of the heart we can truly listen to the pains of the world because there we can recognize them not as strange and unfamiliar pains, but as pains that are indeed our own. There we can see that what is most universal is most personal and that indeed nothing human is strange to us. … It would be paralyzing to proclaim that we, as individuals, are responsible for all human suffering, but it is a liberating message to say that we are called to respond to it. (p 40-41)

Henri then talks about compassion, quoting Thomas Merton alluding to the solitude of the desert of the first Christian contemplatives: “What is my new desert? The name of it is compassion. There is no wilderness so terrible, so beautiful, so arid and so fruitful as the wilderness of compassion. It is the only desert that shall truly flourish like the lily.” (Merton, The Sign of Jonas, p 323.)

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