Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Bread and Stories

I noted over the weekend that National Capital Presbytery on Saturday endorsed three overtures that originated with Clarendon's session. (A friend in Minnesota says that must be a record for one session for a single General Assembly. To which I could only say, "who keeps such records?") In any case, I did not note that the meeting Saturday was remarkably grace-filled and much less antagonistic than most meetings where the church gathers to debate sexuality-related issues.
Some of the lack of rancor may have to do with debate fatigue and the clear sense that in National Capital Presbytery the issues are settled. Some of it last weekend may have been the relatively low attendance, due to the hastily rescheduled Saturday meeting. (The last time we voted on ordination issues there were more than 300 votes cast. Saturday it was about 135 or so.)
But I think two larger reasons for the comity prevailed.
The meeting ran from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., and there was no provision made for lunch beyond, bring something to tide you over. When we learned of that, the board of the Presbytery's More Light chapter decided that we would bring food for everyone. So we organized sandwiches and snacks and gave them away to everyone.
Followers of Jesus know how important breaking bread is to our tradition. It is the way that we build relationships, and the sharing of bread may have helped some who disagree with us to see us as more than shrill opponents of the status quo.
While some may raise a question about the meeting organizers' lack of a lunch plan, no one should question their plans for the meeting itself. Framed entirely within a worshipful context, the gathering consisted largely of story telling around tables of six.
We were asked, initially, to share briefly a story that illuminated one of the proposed overtures. (There were five proposals to be voted on, two of which related to GLBT concerns, one on nonviolence, one on the Charter of Compassion, and one on Middle East affairs. All but the last were approved.)
I told the story of my friend, Joe. Most folks have a "first gay friend," and Joe is mine. At least he was the first out gay friend. One of my friends from kindergarten is gay and two of my hallmates from college are gay -- and have been together for more than 20 years.
But Joe was the first man who was out within our circle of friends in our Chicago days. He is a big, boisterous man -- a bit like a Labrador Retriever crossed with a Saint Bernard. He is a dangerous man to sit next to during while watching the Bears on TV -- especially in that Super Bowl year.
Joe attended an evangelical church in Chicago, and regularly told us, sometimes close to tears, about how his church condemned homosexuals. He was deep in the closet in that congregation, of course, but he loved its worship and his friends from the choir and he simply could not imagine that there might be a church that would welcome him fully so he continued to go, try to worship and come home feeling beaten up. This was at the height of the AIDS crisis, and the gay community as a whole was under assault from so many corners. As I recall those days and Joe's Sundays in them, I know that our repentance is long overdue.
Telling his story is far short of that, but it's what I could offer Saturday morning.
Others around the table shared their own stories. Our table reflected the voting pattern of the Presbytery as a whole on these issues over the past several year. Four of us were on the liberal side and two on the conservative side. The liberals' stories were about gay friends, neighbors or family members and about the experience of feeling excluded. The conservative stories were about struggles to remain faithful to strictly interpreted Biblical standards of behavior.
There was passion aplenty in the stories, but more importantly, there was an equal dose of compassion in the listening.
I am convinced, and the past 30 years of American experience seems to bear this out, that when the stories of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons are told with honesty and heard with empathy that people are moved and positions changed. As Harvey Milk put it, "when they know that they know one of us then they vote with us."
That is not one hundred percent accurate, to be sure, but it is the truth nonetheless.
How can something that is not one hundred percent accurate still be the truth? I suppose that is part of the point. Stories can be true without being told with complete accuracy or perfect fidelity to whatever passes for the accepted history.
In the end, all we really have is the stories that tell us who we are and allow us to share that with others.
As Norman MacLean wrote in Young Men and Fire, his beautiful story of the tragic Mann Gulch fire of 1949, "If there is a story in Mann Gulch, it will take something of a storyteller at this date to find it, and it is not easy to imagine what impulses would lead him to search for it. He probably should be an old storyteller, at least old enough to know that the problem of identity is always a problem, not just a problem of youth, and even old enough to know that the nearest anyone can come at any give stage to finding himself is to find a story that somehow tells him about himself."
The problem of identity is always a problem. We find ourselves in the stories that tell us who we are. If we are honest with ourselves we will also confess that we are often too busy constructive our own stories to listen carefully to the stories others tell of themselves (much less the ones they tell of us). Moreover, because our identities themselves are at stake in the telling of stories, we most often find it far easier and more comfortable to exchange arguments and propositions and talking points.
So we remain divided and alone staring across vast chasms of disagreement or simply of lonely ignorance yearning for someone to ask us, "tell me your story."

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