Today I was invited to lead a devotional with the staff at the Agriculture Department for the State of Alabama. A group of about 20 people gathered and we talked about Joseph, and how things often don’t turn out like we wanted them to. We talked about improbabilities and what can grow in a place easy to dismiss, like Alabama. I found the conversation deeply moving. I was in a roomful of folks who, mostly, are of a very different theological/denominational starting point than mine, that still does not ordain women. Our political and social views are probably miles apart too. I was a guest and I was standing on the edges of their world. It is equally true, though, that we also have our being on the very same ground.
Almost all of them are active in farming in their private life away from the Ag Dep’t so we share knowledge about the color, and texture and smell, and richness of the earth, the red dirt we work. People, including me, so easily dismiss government workers as bureaucrats. Taking their work seriously—simply getting to spend time with people who work in a big, somewhat dreary and profoundly functional building—turned out to be a grace-filled way to start my day, even as I have and continue to prickle and push against the blurring of lines between state and religion.
My work has changed quite radically from anything I did before. These days, there’s some disjointedness: I pick up pieces where necessary, tie up loose ends, pinch hit. I am not responsible for providing high-level, ‘strategic leadership’ (though I am grateful for the times I am invited to provide advice and counsel), try to stay flexible to respond to the unexpected. My work doesn’t have the kind of glamour of travel or the prominence that comes with projects at the national/church-wide level like I was involved in last year. I know now that truly, I am a journeyman (person) of the church.
I looked up the etymology for assist and help—which is what the bulk of my work is about now. To assist comes from words that mean to stand by, to attend, to stretch towards. Help derives from words meaning to succor, benefit, cure, amend. I love that much of what I do is stand by or walk with others. To stretch towards others is not something that comes easily for me. My best friend and I had a conversation recently that helped me understand that for much of my life, I worked hard to define my identity—who I was—and I did a lot of that by defining who I was not. There’s such a tiny space between clarifying boundaries and slipping into outrage about the Other—whoever the Other might be. I know a lot more about who I am now and that allows me to hear others and be with others in ways I couldn’t before
I believe the carnage in endless replay of these days is shaped, at least in part, by gun laws that do not do enough to protect the innocent. I take that position in a state where gun rights are an enormously big deal and we have discussions about open carry policies for our churches. I live in a state Donald Trump has visited regularly and I know and love people who are swayed by at least some of his arguments. It is easy to be outraged (and I am) by the hateful rhetoric Trump uses, by the hideous violence that comes when companies profit so much from selling death through guns. It is easy to speak words from the place outrage. There is work of justice to do and a place to question insistently who, in the end, truly profits from so many guns and assault weapons.
My work ,though, is both related and different. I’m a priest and during this time of the year, I end up preaching quite a bit and am asked to do a fair amount of ‘splainin’ about the mystery we call the Incarnation. I don’t for a minute believe I understand that mystery enough to talk about it much. What I do have is a new heart for learning more about hard love across so many tears and fractures in our country, and how to stretch towards the community I am a part of that sees the world and the challenges of our time in ways so fundamentally different from mine.
I believe this is where I am called to live right now because you see, it isn’t enough to know who I am, or even Whose I am. “Those people” and I? We are brothers and sisters. The future of our children depends on finding a way forward other than the endless fractures and divisions we have surrendered to. We are brothers and sisters and we are each other’s keepers.