Contradiction is the intersection between the two arms of the cross which we humans experience in the days of our lives as we suffer and hope. We hope for a church full of joy and yet so often suffer in a church full of meetings. We hope for people gathered around an altar telling their stories and drinking wine and eating bread; but we suffer a church lined up with pews, muzzled by words thrown at us from pulpits and lecterns. We hope for a church engaged in what Jesus talks about, but we suffer in a church engaged in what clergy talk about. It is at this contradiction that we stand – suffering and hope.
And if you are like me, you suffer at the hands of both your own evil and the evil of others, entwined as they are like two vines of similar leaf. And that too is hard, since God seems to have created both vines – both people – both conversations.
“Conversation” is an interesting word. It comes from the original latin of “turning together.” We turn together as we “live and move and have our being.” Conversation is a matter of taking turns speaking so that we speak as in a dance – the dance of the Trinity in which each partner takes a turn, swings their partner in love into another love – another partner. “Con” means “with.”
And then there is this other word “contradiction.” In its original, classical Latin, the word comes from “contra dicere” which means “to speak with but also against,” from contra “against” or “not with” (see contra) + dicere “to say, speak.”
So while we are in conversation with each other we are also experiencing contradiction – speaking with and against. And we have these two inside us as well. We converse with ourselves (usually not out loud, lest we be charged with being odd – heaven forbid!) and sometimes we converse against ourselves as we place ourselves in the dock of our soul and level charges about our failures, sometimes agreeing to charges leveled at ourselves leading the prisons in which we lock ourselves.
When I meet God without this sad body one day, having so suffered and having so heartily hoped, I will be asking God about the ego. About my ego. Why did I have one? Why did let it cause me so much needless suffering? Jesus seemed to have no ego. He seemed to be rooted in God’s being and so had no ego. Jesus became silent and vulnerable. And though I know we should be silent and vulnerable in the face of threats and abuses, I find that hard to do. It is hard to remain silent and vulnerable. It’s much easier to give up chocolate.
I know so many clergy and lay people who just keep their heads down and walk, chew. Like the 50 sheep my father would move around our farm, Dove Haven. They ate and they walked slowly and they moved to where they were told to move and they even suffered dog bites on their way – fattening for a slaughter. When my father died, this writer-shepherd’s last will and testament directed that a box be sent to me in the monastery. It was long and flat like the boxes we receive in churches falloff sipped palm leaves. Inside was the only possession he specifically left me. His shepherd’s crook. I keep it my my writing desk. It’s the only one I want. It stands vertically, in contradiction to the horizontal desk-top.
It seems that the contradiction of the cross – the cross beams of wood, as it were – are important to the conversation. Otherwise its not a conversation – its a dull repetition of rules and dogma, prayers and creeds.
Antonio Machado, the great poet, says “Last night I dreamed…that I had a beehive here in my heart and that the golden bees were making white combs from my old failures.” and I think that is true. Bees live in a ball and in contradiction to the slats of wax racks, vertical, straight. We fail often, at least interesting people do. The rest do not fail (or hide their failures) and so soar in their careers in the church. But the people in our pews do not need their clergy to be paragons of holiness, spouting religious aphorisms we heard at a monastery or from our spiritual director. They can recognize that regurgitation for what it is, and quickly. What they need is real clergy being real about their lives. They want us to talk less about piety and more about where we have failed and where we have experienced suffering and where bits of hope appear like flecks of silica sparkling in the mud. They don’t need us in pulpits draped in white. They need us at their dining room table dressed in the same muck they experience. They want real conversation about contradiction. Not fake charm about their hats and gloves.
The people of our church can see the changes in our culture. They can do the math. Last week I counted 152 people in church and 5 members under 50. I can do that math. We all can. But God help any of us if we speak about it openly. No. Be obedient. Eat your grass. Move along. Stay together. Don’t look up. — But we are not sheep. We are people. And our clergy and Bishops are not our shepherds. Jesus is.
So what would it look like for the church to call for conversation about contradiction in Lent rather than nattering on about chocolate and pancake bans? What if we were to go to the contraction – the crossing of the cross-beams; bloodied as they are at three points with a false charge at the fourth point? A trinity of blood and a reference point of labeling. What if we did not “give something up” and neither “take something on” but do the much harder work of being in conversation about our contradictions.
We are the church triumphant AND we are wasting away as younger generations choose forests over churches. We are the church hierarchical AND our society is rejecting patriarchy (male or female) as a form of leadership. We meet to attend conferences in the church AND we hold them in luxury hotels that would make Jesus want to drink vodka out of a cat bowl (as Anne Lamott so gorgeously says.) We are a church of saints AND we are notorious sinners. We are a church praising God at the top of our lungs AND we use our speech to condemn and to bludgeon. At least I do. Maybe its only me.
I am tired of talking about finance, budgets, org charts. I want to go off wth Jesus and a few other followers and sit in a small circle under the Colorado night sky with a candle and some bread and wine, some good cheeses and some fruit. And some chocolate covered roasted almonds in sea salt and demerara sugar ( you can get a bg bag at Costco). And I want to converse about contradiction. How we love AND hate, both. How we hope AND suffer, both. How we thrive AND shrivel, both. How we bless AND sin, both. How we coo and scream, both. How we lie AND tell the truth, both. How we compliment AND slander, both. How the church is triumphant AND molting into a new, smaller, more authentic thing, both.
They say that when the church was in caves, suffering the abuses of the state in those first few hundred years, it was its best self. I believe that. They they lifted high the cross, a gold one, and things became, well, contradictory to say the least. As we begin to melt down our gold crosses to pay the light bills and keep church lawns mowed, might that contradiction return us to God’s hope even in our suffering? And may we talk about that in Lent? Please? Or is that too dangerous?
Published on Episcopal Cafe