Sunday, July 29, 2012

Penn State and the Presbyterians

In one of my all-time favorite Lake Wobegon pieces by Garrison Keillor he tells the story of a college professor in some Midwestern university who is slowly falling out of love with his wife and quickly growing infatuated with a female colleague. The two of them are scheduled to go to a conference together and he knows that when they do they will begin an affair. He stands out in his front yard waiting for the woman to come pick him up. It is at that moment that this man Jim begins to really think about what he’s doing – and later he describes what happened:

“I looked up the street of my little town which was health to my flesh and blood, where people went to church, and voted in elections, and bought what the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts sold them, rooted for the home team, raised money for the library and tended the parks. And I thought how much we depend on each other. All these houses and all these families, my infidelity will somehow shake them, pollute the drinking water, and send noxious fumes up the ventilators at the elementary school.

“When we scream in senseless anger,” the professor continues ruminating, “a little 8-year-old girl several blocks away we don’t even know spills gravy all over a white tablecloth. And if I go to Chicago with this woman who is not my wife, somehow the school patrol will forget to guard the intersection, and someone’s child will be injured. A 6th-grade teacher will say, ‘What the heck,’ and eliminate South America from geography. The minister will say, ‘What the heck,’ and decide not to give that sermon about feeding the poor. The guy at the grocery store will say, “To heck with the health department, this sausage was good yesterday, it’s just as good today.’ And I decided that we all depend on each other more than we can ever know.”

The story ends with Jim walking back into his house and forgetting the trip.

Keillor beautifully makes an oft-ignored point. No man is an island. We live in a web. We are connected to everything else. Every move sends ripples across the web strings. And it reminds us that everything we do matters because it affects so many, far beyond what we know.

The tragic events at Penn State show clearly how much of a connected system we are in. Boys are violated and the web shakes as a result. And because we are all connected we all have a responsibility when the ripple crosses our part of the web -- whether we are the first to hear and see or the last to hear and see. And we each react and our action or inaction sends further ripples. It’s not just one man who is responsible and it’s not just a few men who are responsible. We’re all responsible because we’re all in the web. Blame lies not just with a team’s culture or with a university’s culture, but with a sport’s culture. I am a part of that. And I am just as vulnerable as the next person to be tempted to do the wrong thing, or to pressure others to do the wrong thing for the sake of my enjoyment. If I behave like I want my team to win at all costs – the team or coach might just do that. I bear responsibility for that.

And yet typically our response to such tragedy is to point fingers at whatever piece of the institution we think is most to blame and say, “There’s the problem.” We attempt to make it an island, dislodge it from the main, cut out the piece of the web that we think is guilty and attempt to leave the rest intact. The problem is that when you cut out a piece of the web, the rest of the web collapses. You have nothing to hang on.

We talk a lot about this on Good Friday. When Jesus hangs on the cross we don’t ask who’s to blame. We don’t point the finger at Pilate or the Romans and say, “It’s your fault.” We bear our own responsibility and rhetorically sing, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” And the answer is yes. We are in the human web, the sinful human web that brings about the death of the Messiah.

I think this is what the apostle Paul was getting at when he talks to the fractured Corinthian church and says, “YOU are the body of Christ. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you.’” We in the Church are connected to each other whether we want to be or not. We can’t disown a part of the body just because we don’t like it or understand it. Paul continues, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”

So I find it curious that when the Church finds itself in disagreement there are some whose response is to dislodge themselves from the main and create an island. Disconnect from the web and see if we can go it alone. Become like-minded. Dismember themselves from the body and say, “I have no need of you.” It seems to fly in the face of I Corinthians 12. It’s easy for us to find something that gives us reason to separate because we live in the fantasy that we are stronger on our own.

Our friends in State College, Pennsylvania are known to exclaim on Saturday afternoons, “We are Penn State.” It was true last year and it’s no less true this year. When some suffer, all suffer. When some rejoice, all rejoice. We’re all responsible.

Doesn’t the same go when we sing with our children, “I am the church. You are the
church. We are the church together?” Or when we sing, “Blest be the tie that binds?” Christ has entangled us in his web and there is no letting us go or, for that matter, letting each other go.

Friday, July 6, 2012

God, church and baseball

I'm in Pittsburgh attending the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. It is the bi-annual gathering of Presbyterians where we go to discover how different we are. For some reason this always seems to surprise us. We lament how little we have in common. We cast aspersions on folks on the other side. Sometimes the divide is razor thin, sometimes a little bigger. There is always dissent. It is as it should be. It's what makes being a Presbyterian such a great thing. It seems though at these things we spend so little time focusing on what we have in common; the core reason for why we're there. While in Pittsburgh I stole away one night to catch a baseball game. The Pirates were in town playing the Astros. I like baseball and I'm a big St. Louis Cardinal fan. I don't follow particularly the two teams that were playing, but the game itself brought me there. Not everybody there was a Pirates fan, nor an Astros fan. But we were all baseball fans. We like the game: the balls and strikes, the pitches and catches, the home runs and strikeouts, the play of the players. Everybody understands what we're there for - to watch, cheer and participate in baseball. What's the "game" that brings us to be the church? In my church back home we do something just about every Sunday - we repeat together the Apostles' Creed. Just about everything else we do is different each Sunday - the music, the scriptures, the prayers, the sermon - but the creed stays the same. And once we leave our variety of actions are even more varied than what we've done "in sanctuary". Still we come back each week to say the creed. It's what we believe, it's what informs our particular paths and it's what brings us together. It's baseball. The Church gets in trouble every time we try to add to it, and when we insist that the rest have to agree to the "add-on". We do this with new confessions, new policy positions, new moral guidelines. And we offer these add-ons not as ideas and points to consider and celebrate, but rather as dictums to be obeyed. And sure enough we gather at the stadium and spend our time fighting in the stands rather enjoying a good game, the best game. There are more U.S. Presbyterian denominations than there are Major League baseball teams. Each seems to want to play a different game. And yet few would disagree over the Apostles' Creed. God in Christ has done an amazing thing. It takes a lifetime to even scratch the surface of how amazing it really is. Every day affords us the chance to respond to it in wide, varied and creative ways. How about a Church of the Apostles' Creed? How about when we gather we take in the game? Celebrate the game? Participate in the game? And not let the rest distract us from what's going on on the field. I know it sounds like a naive suggestion and I know it will fall prey to the sophisticated and the cynical. But wouldn't it be a place to start a conversation - a new conversation about an old game.