I don’t know how many of you listen to the podcast “On Being” hosted by Krista Tippet (shout out to Bree who introduced me to the show and also highly recommend if you don’t listen already) – but one of the things she talks about a lot, and the show seeks to foster, is civic engagement and civil discourse.
These sound like really big words, but it basically actually talking to one another about the politics we hold – and remembering our manners while we have that conversation.
On Sunday, I held the second of our four-week study talking about Just Mercy, a book by Bryan Stevenson about prisoners on death row in Alabama. We have two groups – one after each service. The makeup of each group is different, and the conversations are really interesting.
On Sunday, we got into a bit of hot water. As you may imagine, talking about the death penalty, the racial injustice of our legal system, and what all of that means to our faith, can get pretty heated. Political ideologies begin to be expressed, whether we realise it or not. In my second group, there was a moment where I could feel the tension rise – there were some differing opinions, here – some strong convictions being challenged by the nature of the material.
And then, the most wonderful thing happened – the two who were beginning to get into a disagreement actually talked TO one another. They didn’t talk at one another – they didn’t fall into side conversations with the people next to them – they genuinely wanted to hear the other out, and to find common ground. Neither one dug their heels in unnecessarily, or got rude or snippy. No one else in the group jumped in to escalate, just stayed engaged with the process.
It was one of the most beautiful witnesses of Christian community I have seen. Ever. Some would argue that politics must stay out of the church – but I think part of our being, and being in this world, is political – so keeping it out of church all together is not offering a full welcome. Some would say that churches should strive towards political engagement, constantly talking about and advising members on the votes they should cast.
What I saw on Sunday was neither and both, at the same time. I think churches should be a place where we learn how to be civil to one another – where we are welcomed in the fullness of our ideologies and beliefs, challenged, and invited to grow. There isn’t an end goal – to get everyone to vote one way, but rather there is an invitation to be engaged with the process. To actually listen to a differing opinion, and to offer your own as well.
I pray for a world where we know more of this civility.
Last week, I was talking to Pastor Diane about the declining numbers in church membership (not just as something affecting St Peter’s, but as an overall trend).
She commented that there are so many people who subscribe to the, “spiritual but not religious” category. And we got into a discussion – why do people need to go to church anyway? What is it that happens there that can’t be done alone?
I’m sure there are a bunch of different ways to answer this question. I’ve heard an argument before that you have to go to church to receive communion – it’s something only a priest can do. I don’t agree with this. I believe strongly in the priesthood of all believers, and think Eucharist happens all the time — whenever we break bread around a table, whether there are two people or dozens.
Some would say that the ritual of church is needed to connect us to the ones who have gone before. While I recognise the impact this has on me, and the ways it connects me to my ancestors, I also don’t think church is the only place you can do this.
In the end, I think church is important because of the community of it. Where else, in life, is it possible to have so many people gathered together in a singular experience?
I thought, then, about protests – and the ways that civic engagement of that kind connects us with one another. I thought about how everyone is going through the same physical motions – whether that is marching with one another, or chanting together, or wearing the same color.
At church, there are some parts of the liturgy which encourage this. When we recite together – say, the words of the Nicene Creed, or the confession of sin – our breath becomes uniform, and we are cohesive.
When we sing together, we are also united. Breath comes at the end of musical phrases, as a punctuation. This isn’t about the beauty of your voice, the ability to harmonise or even be in the right key. It is about, instead, a willingness to participate – a willingness to contribute individually to a greater collective.
In church, our very breath connects us, spiritually, to one another. We are able to be present with one another, to feel a unity, that we don’t usually experience. We are given the opportunity to journey together, and break through the isolation which can otherwise overwhelm.
Church is where we can truly breathe.
Last week, before we ate together, Bree and I bowed our heads – and then there was a moment of silence. Usually, somewhat organically, one of us will say a short grace. Now that I want to explain it, I don’t think there was a moment where we decided this would be our pattern – It just seemed to naturally emerge. After all, we met one another in seminary – perhaps it was a given.
But, that night, it wasn’t. We sat there in silence, until I opened by eyelid and peeked at her. We were both tired, from long days at work. I think I felt like there was nothing to say. My day had been ordinary – no big God moment, or standing in recognition of the holy. And our dinner was simple – leftovers we each had pulled from the fridge. It didn’t feel like much needed to be said.
So, it got me thinking about prayer – do we pray for us, or for God? Why do we do it? What does it do, to us? to the world? to the relationships that happen around it?
Prayer is for God, yes – but I am sure that more than my prayers shaping the actions of an all-knowing, compassionate God, my prayers shape me. They shape me into a person who recognises the holy – one whose vision has perhaps been fine-tuned towards the Divine. Prayer is itself an action, and it leads me into further action – it helps me to reflect on where I see God, and to go towards that light, towards that promised kin-dom.
Last night as I bowed my head, I had no poetic slurry of words. Instead, I began by saying, thank you. And I followed with things for which I am thankful. For family, for these delicious tomatoes, for tax documents prepared by someone else, for food filling my fridge, for seeing friends, for a car. . . Once I began, I had quite a lot to say. I think this is how prayer is shaping me — not such that I won’t ever sit in silence, for there is holiness and wisdom in that, as well — but such that I never feel as if a day is only “ordinary”, and needs no words of gratitude.
I am still learning.
This week, I began working, in earnest, on the small garden behind the parish hall. I had seen the beds, and knew what needed to be done. The soil was depleted, and the beds messy. I thought it would be best to pull out what was there, turn the earth, and add in some soil conditioner and compost, adding nutrients to the dirt, making it a more hospitable environment for produce to grow in.
So, knowing what needed to be done, I set to work – pulling out weeds and saving some garlic chives, rosemary, and curry leaf – in hopes that some church folks would be able to use them and take them home. The work was monotonous, and as the sun beat down I realised I didn’t in fact want to take out the curry leaf tree – it was providing the only shade I had, and I liked it.
As I repeatedly bent and pulled, and raked through the roots, pulling them out of the beds – I thought about my own stubbornness. I am very headstrong, and as I worked to uproot the chives, I got frustrated that they were at least as headstrong as I. I wondered, then, if the work I was doing outwardly might mirror the work I was attempting inwardly.
I have come to St. Peter’s with no agenda, other than to live into this calling I have felt in my life since I was a young child. I have a contract which outlines some basic ministries I might become involved in, but there is so much more to ministry, so much more to the life of God’s spirit, than can be placed on a piece of paper.
So, my prayer in the garden became – prepare my soul as soil. Uproot what once was there, to re-invigorate, and bring new life, to these beds. Add to that which has been depleted, and bring new, hopeful shoots, to the surface – stretching their heads towards the sun, and finding the light in this new place. Amen.
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