Wednesday, May 28, 2008

All That You Profess at the Lord's Table

In a world where there is so much to be done, where do we focus our energies?

I’ve always been drawn to religious expressions that stress our obligation (and invitation) to love where we are. The far-away needs beckon. That’s undeniable. And we’d dehumanize ourselves if we turned our backs on them and became willfully blind to them.

But the ones on which we can have the most effect are right here, in our own back yards, on our streets, in the cities in which we live. And it seems futile (to me, at least) to say that we can love those at a distance while shunning those beside us—those who kneel with us at the Lord’s table on Sunday.

I think I’m inclined to this spirituality of loving here and now, in small ways in our small lives, for a variety of reasons. Long ago, I read and re-read C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, and was captivated by his piety of loving the difficult neighbor within our own household—the querulous voice demanding toast a shade darker each morning.

There’s something via media in that piety, something that eschews the Baroque excess of mystical flames and lambent ecstasy in which one dissolves into the divine. There’s a hard-headed earthiness about via media piety which insists on our finding the divine in the most mundane aspects of our daily lives.

At its best, this piety elevates everything to the sacramental level—or, rather, it recognizes the sacramentality of everything in our daily existence. Breaking bread at our supper tables is not isolated from breaking bread at the table of the Lord. All bread is the bread of the Lord. At our family tables, we celebrate communion just as sacramentally as we do in church.

Indeed, if we fail to celebrate communion at home—to live in unity with those around us, to mend broken fences in our relationships—we make a mockery of the communion we celebrate in the sacral space of church. In a famous sermon on Communion, John Wesley says,

For all that you profess at the Lord's table, you must both profess and keep, or you cannot be saved. For you profess nothing there but this,-- that you will diligently keep his commandments. And cannot you keep up to this profession? Then you cannot enter into life.

This is why—this sacramental perspective linking the everyday to the sacred action, which forms my own piety in deep ways—I find those experiences of sharing the bread of the Lord with fellow Christians who then refuse to acknowledge any connectedness to me as a human being so exceedingly painful. These experiences drive me from church.

How can one believe in the sacrament at all, and belie what communion means every day except Sunday? I don’t get it. It is my very belief in the sacredness of partaking of the Lord's bread that makes it impossible, now, for me to kneel with others who profess the same belief, but whose behavior towards me as a gay Christian seems to appeal to the lowest-common-denominator ethic, an ethic of because I can: I exclude and demean you, and continue to kneel at the Lord's table, because I can. No law of church or society forbids me such savagery.

I’m sure that in my own way, I am among those who have profaned the Lord’s table in this way, kneeling with a friend on Sunday, only to stick the knife in his back on Monday. If I did so, though, I’d hope that my heart would burn within me with shame, so that I’d find it impossible to live with myself until I had mended what I had broken. That would be, for me, a precondition to kneeling ever again at the table of the Lord.

I know that I am the querulous voice demanding toast a shade darker each morning. Ask Steve and my family, and you’d no doubt get an earful. Oh wad some gift the giftie gie us . . . .

The homely piety of the everyday that frames the via media’s approach to living the religious life: it requires that our love not only begin at home. It requires that we learn to love ourselves, to bear with our crotchitness, our stunted imaginations and shriveled hearts. No one is harder to live with, in the end, than oneself.

I’m drawn to the piety of the via media as well, because of Julian of Norwich’s homely images of God. If Julian’s mysticism is correct, we do not find God anywhere, if we fail to look for God right in our own homes, in our daily lives, in the lives of those around us.

Love, then, the practical love demanded of us as believers, is not heroic at all—not in the sense that God calls us to leave everything behind, sail the seas, and minister to the needy masses across the globe. And love is utterly heroic—in the sense that God calls us to love those closest to us, on a daily, grinding basis in which we continue to seek divine significance where we are least prone to see it.

Not that some of us aren’t called to mend the wounds of those around the earth from us (and to be open to the possibility that those to whom we feel called to minister may end up ministering to us; those to whom we feel called to bring the gospel may bring the good news to us, from their own religious traditions). But the love that extends outwards—to the ends of the earth—doesn’t mean anything, unless it begins here and now, in our own midst.

There simply is no sermon more persuasive than the life lived. The Christian churches can convince no one that God’s love encompasses every living creature in the world, that God desires the healing of the whole world, as long as the churches themselves do not exemplify the love they proclaim.

And the only way to exemplify this love is to love the Other in our midst, the one we travel the globe to find, only to discover that she is right beside us in the pew, the inexplicable outsider whose face is so similar to our own, but who is so different from us that we feel tempted to shun him for the way in which his difference troubles the placid surface of our lives.

Until we can invite that Other to our own table—and mean it, in that we refrain from all acts of violence against that Other when the sacred meal has given way to the meal of daily bread—all our preaching to the unwashed masses around the world will be mere dryasdust braying that means nothing.

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