Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Acrimony and thoughts on authority

I grew up in a world that was stratified. My parents are both academics, and as such they live in a world that is layered with roles and levels of authority and responsibility. There are committee and department chairs, sub-deans and associate deans, dean and chancellors, vice-presidents and presidents. You are not just a teacher in higher education, either: there are adjunct faculty,;assistant, associate and full professors; professor emeriti and a whole host of other titles that differentiate one from another. And, let us not forget the divide between instructor and student, or student and administration. You get dizzy just trying to figure all that out...And those are just the explicit structures. Don't forget all the implicit ones that lurk beneath the surface. There is that secretary who knows not only where all the proverbial bodies are buried in the department; she also knows where all the extra paper clips are hidden. There is that building engineer who knows how to get your desk/table/bookcase fixed without the right forms being issued and duly authorized in triplicate. Don't forget the registrar who can make or break a major for a student by finding room in that one class that a student needs in order to graduate.

So, why should the Church be any different? Sure, it is all about God and God's kingdom breaking in through Jesus the Christ...But it is also just as human an institution as academia, the armed services, any corporation or any other human social structure. Somehow, though, I think we trick ourselves into thinking from time to time that church should be CHURCH, and that people should somehow discover new ways of being with each other in life than the ones they express in every other quarter of existence. Anxiety is anxiety. Aggression is aggression. Bureaucracy is just that, bureaucracy. What makes doing and being church a challenge is that we are being asked to journey through those darker expressions of human nature and into something deeper, richer and more vibrant: life in God.

Right now, I am reading Barbara Brown Taylor's Leaving Church. It is a very interesting memoir. She is a writer/priest/professor at Piedmont College, and a former parish priest who left that role when her ability to deal with the stresses of parish life exceeded her love for her role. At one point, a very moving one in the narrative, she realizes that she has lost an essential part of how she is as a person of faith. The root word she holds up is "Behold." Her faith journey began, and is fed by, an experience of beholding God revealed in the world. Sometimes that happens in a moonbeam. Sometimes, in a morning breeze. Sometimes in the laugh of a child. Increasingly in her parish ministry, she was losing the ability to behold...Mostly because she had fallen into trying to argue with people in order to get them to behold.

All human institutions are just that, human. What makes them divine is our own willingness to give over to God the opportunity to inspire us to work in the name of the inbreaking kingdom. That means setting down an innate tendency we have as people in political life to live "over and against" the other, instead of "in and within." As we attempt to get things done, we tend to create for ourselves vertical structures of authority. As we realize what TRUE SUCCESS in life is, being able to do...And to enjoy the doing...I am convinced there is a renewed commitment drawing us toward seeing life as a horizontal plane. We are all human. Regardless of authority expressed within a structure, the janitor has as much stake in the institution as the President. We just have to realize that authority expressed is only an improvisation on a common call to community.

That is a very hard lesson to learn. I crack up on those rocks all the time. I believe it is called "sailing into a lee shore" in maritime parlance. Dangerous living. Living into that covenantal experience means turning off the political commentators who seek to stir us up just to get a greater listening share. It means being willing to self-educate in the electoral process. It means being willing to ask before we act to see how our actions will affect others in community. It means being willing to NOT be so very big in the britches when we get a bit of power in our vest pockets. Finally, it means knowing our limits. What saddens me about Barbara Brown Taylor and her story of departing from parish ministry is that at this moment in the narrative, she is experiencing the shifting away from one role as a stripping away. Too many layers of varnish have accrued for her to be able to find what it is that feeds her, allow what doesn't to fall away and discover that life is life...Regardless of role.

We all are ones living under authority. As I think, though, about roles and powerbases, I am reminded by Jesus' rebuke to the disciples from this past Sunday. After hearing them argue about who was greatest among them during their time on the road, he takes a child and puts it in their midst. "Welcome the least as the most important," he adjures, "and you welcome me." That certainly puts power in its place, don't you think?

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