Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Shared Humanity

... Love your neighbor as yourself...
“Good morning.” I waved to the man across the street as I stepped out of the car at the church. He was sitting on a porch, smoking. He waved back. “Enjoying the September morning?” He moved in what I interpreted to be a shrug.

I continued into the church, thinking about our exchange. No one in the church’s neighborhood comes to this church that's tried a few outreach ministries into the community but with no long term effect.

A big reason is that mission is built on relationships. It took me a long time to get this as I’m generally task-driven (rather than people-driven), but I’ve seen that it’s so. It was the relationships that connected me with people in my last appointment, both in and out of the church.

So far I’ve been working on in-church relationships as I work to learn their ways and my role here, but I hope to build relationships in other communities as well. When my predecessor and I got together this spring, we went downtown for coffee. I was surprised (and impressed) when he stopped in almost every shop on the way to say “hello” or ask a question. And he called everyone by name. I want to work on this.

Shop people are easy. I can do that. You can do that. Cultivating relationships with people in the rental-properties, high-turnover neighborhood north of the church is harder. But it’s probably more important. First, because here we find underemployed people working multiple jobs while trying to raise their families. Wouldn’t we like them to believe that their neighbors at First Church really are neighbors? Important also because, for many of them, the image they have of church is a bad one – because of youthful experiences or, more likely, because the loudest Christian voices preach a “good news” that only a limited audience can appreciate. For the rest, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

For those few who will someday join a church, what a gift we offer in helping them dismantle that barrier. Whenever we cultivate respectful, compassionate relationships with people, then if or when our faith comes up, they may see Christianity in a better light. Yes, if or when. The goal is the connection. If religion comes up, let it be because we first reflect the love of God.

But back to my neighbor… I know that he’s male, youngish, and smokes. I think he lives there and by his attire that he just got up. Except for getting up in the morning and living in Wausau, so far we have nothing in common. Seeing him this morning, I faced again why it’s so hard to connect with strangers. They're different from us.

Then I think of the words we hear when people attempt religious or political dialog. I don’t know who first said it, but Ernest Gaines’ version is:
“We all have much more in common than we have differences. I would say that about people all over the world. They don't know how much in common that they have.” 
This is where my hope comes in. "We all have much more in common than we have differences." I may not see much in common with a stranger until we get beyond the small talk, but after that, we almost always find more in common with each other than a shared humanity. Even if it takes longer than that, a shared humanity is a fine place to start.

Monday, September 11, 2017

How Can One Word Mean Both "Pride" and "Emptiness"?!

All is vanity. Ecclesiastes 1:2b

I’ve misplaced my hairbrush. (I believe it’s in the book bag I carry between home and the church, but I’m not seeing that either.) I don't think I own a comb. So I’ve been finger-combing my hair this week. With my current hairstyle, it works but I don't want to keep it up.

Last month, I started thinking vanity might be a good topic – mostly because of wondering before getting this haircut if it was too young for me. I'm going to take this lost hairbrush as a cue.

Merriam-Webster online dictionary has six definitions for vanity. (I've left off three that concern furnishings.)
  • inflated pride in oneself or one's appearance :  conceit
  • something that is vain, empty, or valueless
  • the quality or fact of being vain
Most of us think of pride and conceit when we think of vanity – like when we say someone spends too much effort on their appearance. But...

I'm clergy and I write intentionally from a faith perspective. So my resources include the bible as well as dictionaries. And what I find there is that most of the biblical references to vanity are of the second variety (per the points above.) Decades ago, when I first read Ecclesiastes, I was so confused. What was the writer saying? How did all these things connect to pride? I knew that vanity and vain share the same root, but ... ? It was only years later that it clicked: Vain as in "In vain" rather than vain as in "Being vain." Ah, I get it! (Language can be confusing sometimes.) 

They're saying: "So much of life is empty. So much of what we do or fuss over just doesn't matter." I'm not necessarily vain, but I'll be disappointed if I expect something to last forever. (Still not very happy or hopeful, but maybe true more often than we care to believe.)

Even in Proverbs 31:30 – the chapter about the "perfect" woman – can be understood this way. Instead of 
Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,
    but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. (NRSV)
(Bad me, bad me!) it can be interpreted as:
Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting,
    but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. (CEB)
Yes, today's culture has gone off the deep end and vanity is of the "Being vain" sort in too many instances. As described in the documentary Culture in Decline: Consumption-Vanity Disorder: "Today we live in an ocean with enormous waves of status obsession, materialism, vanity, ego and consumerism." 

And, yes, it's probably a good idea for us to check in with ourselves now and then to assess our vanity quotient. But for some of us, vanity isn't as much of a problem as we (women, mostly) have been led to believe. I'm comfortable with my haircut. Kay assures me it's fine. No one's laughed at me. And anyway, I'm doing better with that.

I always thought that's what Carly Simon meant when she sang, "You probably think this song is about you." But now I wonder if it was a double entendre, though not an indecent one.

So it really doesn't matter, matter, matter, matter, matter!
Ruddigore by W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan

Picture found at Steal Her Style