Sunday, May 29, 2016
Christian Civility in a Coarse Culture

I am now approaching my last few weeks in parish ministry after 33 years in the priesthood, serving the Church from the Gaspe Coast to Vancouver Island, from Pennsylvania to San Diego, to right here at St. James Westminster Church in London, Ontario.

One of the biggest differences that I have noticed since the time that I was ordained back in 1983 is the coarsening of our culture. There is a lot more vulgarity today, a sharpness of language and tone that was not as common years ago. People find it harder to find common ground, live with differences and be civil to one another. Our culture has become shrill, acerbic, more acrimonious and less willing to compromise.

Take politics in the United States, for example. Candidates running for President have called each other names, using schoolyard taunts and shouting over one another in television debates. Language unheard of in a campaign for President is now a common occurrence. Where is the respect for one another or the conduct becoming the dignity of seeking the highest office in the land?

A few weeks ago the Nevada Democratic State Convention erupted in turmoil as angry delegates yelled at one another, threw chairs, and threatened one another to the point that the State Party Chair had to flee the building. Police were summoned to keep order on the convention floor, and several top Democratic officials even had their lives threatened.

Here in Canada we have had our own brouhaha in Parliament. The specter of the Prime Minister having a temper tantrum, crossing the floor, manhandling a member of the opposition, elbowing a female MP in the chest and alleging using the “F” word was frankly unbelievable. It came perilously close to contempt of Parliament. The one saving grace is that the Prime Minister apologized and the opposition parties seemed ready to move on and let the matter pass.

Regrettably, the same ugliness in politics I have seen in the Church. I was a deputy to the 2003 General Convention of the Episcopal Church. I like to refer to that gathering as “the convention from hell” because of the un-Christian behavior exhibited by some of the deputies, who would not even share Eucharist together. Friends became enemies, relations became strained, and suspicions about one another mounted, and all because of one issue – whether to ratify the Diocese of New Hampshire’s decision to elect an openly gay man in a committed relationship as their bishop.

We in the Anglican Church are in danger of that same polarization happening at General Synod this summer when a motion to change the marriage canons and allow gay marriage comes up for debate. The House of Bishops has already let it be known that they are hopelessly divided on the issue, with about a third of the Bishops in favor, a third against, and a third on the fence. Since changing the canons requires a two-thirds vote, the motion is unlikely to pass with the bishops, though it may pass with the laity and clergy. What the ramifications of rejecting the change in canons would mean, no one is quite sure, though there is likely to be a great deal of pain and hurt in the LGBT community within the Church – and perhaps even canonical disobedience by clergy who will defy their bishops and marry gay and lesbian couples. There may well be chaos throughout the Church.

So how do we deal with division, disagreement and even dissension both in politics and the Church? How can we avoid needless polarization in which nobody wins and everybody loses? Is there a way to keep our civility in our coarse culture? Here is what I try to keep in mind when a potentially polarizing issue come my way: First, I’m not God. Second, this isn’t heaven. Third, practice kindness.

It was the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes writing to psychologist William James who said, “The great act of faith is when a man decides he is not God.” In other words, I’m not God and neither are you. That has profound implications. First, you can’t change most things, so stop trying. Second, you’re not in charge, so stop acting as if you were. And third, you don’t know everything, so stop acting as if you do. Knowing you are not God brings calm, perspective and humility to our lives. It keeps us grounded that each of us is just a speck in the universe, finite and mortal, which makes humility something to cultivate.

No one has expressed this better than the 20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in what is commonly called the Serenity Prayer. The first lines are often quoted but let me share the full text of that prayer: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardship as the pathway to peace. Taking as Jesus did this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His will; that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him forever in the next.

That’s a prayer for all of us to say daily. I’m not God – you’re not God. Let God be God, and get on with living a humble but faithful life, doing the best you can, as God gives you the light to see the right.

The second lesson, “This isn’t heaven” can help to reduce the complaining we do. If you live in the world, things are going to go wrong all the time. Toilets overflow, roasts get burned, furnaces stop working, and water heaters leak. That’s life. And because all of us are mortal, our bodies’ age and ache, our hair turns gray, we get sick, have this problem or that, and then we die. Life is like that. God never promised us perfection in this life. God never said you won’t have pains or problems, or that you will always get your way, no matter how right you think you are. As the song put it, “I beg your pardon / I never promised you a rose garden.”

Catholics understand this better than Anglicans. Their spirituality views life as a “vale of tears” where the joys and pains of being human go hand in hand. There’s no heaven on earth in this life – not even in the Church. People do things that break our hearts and sap our strength. The history of the Church is filled with corrupt and even brutal Popes, Cardinals, Bishops and Kings. Even at the local level, every parish has its own “war” stories to tell.

When I was studying divinity at Trinity College, many of us looked to George Herbert as the model priest we all sought to emulate. Herbert was a 17th century Anglican divine whose book on the Country Parson shaped the Anglican way of parish ministry – a sane, balanced, and eminently moderate way of life, not too stressful but prayerful and pastoral.

The trouble is: what George Herbert wrote is not true. It wasn’t true then and it isn’t true now. No one considering parish ministry should ever think there is anything sane and balanced about it. Maybe that’s why there is now a book out with the title: If You Meet George Herbert on the Road, Kill Him. Ministry is tough and not for the squeamish, the insecure or the faint of heart. It takes perseverance, stamina and a thick skin to ward off the inevitable complaints, criticisms and attacks that come your way.

But, of course, tough times don’t happen just to priests but to every one of us, in whatever our job or situation. Teachers, lawyers and other professionals are experiencing similar challenges. The point is not to grumble or complain but to accept the fact that we live in a less than perfect world. I am not perfect, and neither are you. After all, this isn’t heaven.

The third lesson is in some ways the most important: “Practice kindness.”

Woody Guthrie, the folksinger, told a story about a banker who went to a farmer to foreclose on his property during the Great Depression. The banker asked if the farmer could pay what he owed, and the farmer said he just didn’t have the money. In that case, said the banker, I have to foreclose on your farm. The farmer asked for more time, which the banker was reluctant to give him, but then he said, “Look, I just got a glass eye. If you can tell my glass eye from my real eye, I’ll let you have another week.”

The farmer carefully looked into one eye, then the other. Finally, he said, “The left one is your glass eye.”

“You’re right,” said the banker, “but how did you know?”

“It was easy,” said the farmer. “It was the only eye with any twinkle of human kindness.”

Kindness is in short supply these days. Today a surprising number of people think nothing of attacking people anonymously on Twitter, calling politicians terrible names and maligning their integrity during debates, posting mean comments on Facebook and shouting over one another on talk shows. Even in the Church the internet and telephone often are used for gossip, rumor mongering and disparaging our fellow Christians. Where’s the kindness that the Church, above all other institutions, should be witnessing to the world?

I am the first to admit that kindness is not easy to practice. It takes discipline, resolve and a steadfast commitment to live out the Sermon on the Mount and the two Great Commandments that Jesus taught: to love God and to love one another. Here’s how I try to practice kindness.

First, I try to give people the benefit of the doubt. St. Ignatius Loyola placed that simple maxim at the beginning of his Spiritual Exercises, where he called it a “Presupposition.” “Every good Christian,” he wrote, “ought to be more eager to put a good interpretation on a neighbor’s statement than to condemn it.” Wise advice – give people the benefit of the doubt unless there is clear and compelling evidence to the contrary.

Second, I try to avoid ad hominem arguments – that is, attacks on the person. The difference here is between “I think your argument is incorrect because…” and “You’re a bad Anglican with an even worse opinion.” Avoiding that will ratchet down emotion significantly and help all interactions go more smoothly. So never impugn the motives of anyone, even if you disagree with their actions.

Finally, I try to take an overtly spiritual approach, asking God to help me see others the way God may view them. The old adage that everyone is fighting a battle (or carrying a cross) is helpful. You never know the struggles of another person. Often a soft word or a warm compliment can be immensely supportive. You can do a great deal of good by just being considerate, smiling instead of expressing displeasure, extending a little friendship, going out of your way to do just one nice thing, or saying one kind word. And who knows, by your act of kindness you may turn an enemy into a friend.

Again, I go back to St. Ignatius Loyola. In his Spiritual Exercises he invites us to imagine the Trinity looking down on all humanity with love. The next time you’re angry with someone, think of the Trinity gazing down with love on the person you’re about to blast. After all, if God can love such a person, perhaps you can, too.

This doesn’t mean you can’t disagree with people, or express disapproval over their actions, or you can’t discuss hot topics in which there may well be heated debate. Of course, you can disagree and even disagree vehemently. Just keep practicing kindness. Treat one another with respect. Remember that we are all children of God. This is basic stuff for Christians, but essential if we are to live together as one community, one country and one Church.

The great Norwegian novelist Johan Bojer wrote a story called, The Great Hunger. It happened that an anti-social newcomer moved into the village and put a fence around his property with a sign saying, “Keep Out.” He also put a vicious dog in the fence to keep anyone from climbing it. One day, the neighbor’s little girl reached inside the fence to pet the dog and the dog grabbed her by the arm and savagely bit and killed her.

The townspeople were enraged and refused to speak to the recluse. They wouldn’t sell him groceries at the store. When it came time to planting, they wouldn’t sell him seed. The man became destitute and didn’t know what to do.

One day he saw another man sowing seed on his field. He ran out and discovered it was the father of the little girl. “Why are you doing this?” he asked. The father replied, “I am doing this to keep God alive in me.”

Dear people, in a culture that is becoming increasingly uncivil, we need to keep God alive in us. If you have enough humility to know that you’re not God, and if you have enough realism to accept that this world is not heaven, and if you try to practice kindness even when you think you’ve been wronged, then the light of God will shine through you and there will indeed be hope for our world.

Dr. Gary Nicolosi
May 29, 2016
Text – Galatians 1: 1-12
Proper 4 (9), C