An earnest young woman begins to pray:
“Father God, we are so glad to be here. Thank you, Father God. We just want to give you praise…”
And somewhere behind it begins, the subtle under-the-breath comments:
“Here we go, ‘Father God?’”
“Oh, and add in a little, ‘I just wanna’…”
“Father God, we just want to express to you what is in our hearts…”
All the while, subtle critiques may continue of her theological articulateness or, perhaps worse, the appropriateness of her shorts.**
Or perhaps it is later on, in the sermon, when a preacher shares something akin to “Of course, we would never know what taking a day off is like, would we clergy?” or “but your church members think you only work a couple hours on Sunday, right?”
I would guess that these are not uncommon experiences. Likely whomever you are reading this can point to an experience – likely recently! – where some comment or conversation had a subtle, or not-so-subtle, negativity in it.
I learned somewhere along the way – whether I practice it well or not – that sarcasm is a form of (veiled?) violence. (I think it was in Stephen Ministry training, actually.) It is a way of couching negative, even hurtful statements, in a socially acceptable way. And yet I don’t think I can go a day without encountering – or, perpetuating – it.
I also routinely run in to cynicism, so prevalent in our age. The dictionary defines it as “an inclination to believe that people are motivated purely by self-interest; skepticism.” I heard a great definition of it recently; but unfortunately at that time I wasn’t carrying my journal and didn’t write it down, so it is lost in the recesses of my memory…
Actually, my journal is part of why I’m reflecting on this today. Before traveling to Oregon last week for a conference, I grabbed the journal that I used to regularly keep, but haven’t written in since the day Gracie died in 2010.
As in many of my other Journals, the first few pages are a selection of Scriptures to help focus my attention in meditation/prayer, as well as the General Rules of the United (Methodist) Societies, and The Desiderata (by Max Plank). Among all of these, on the first page, are five translations of Philippians 4:8, which have been influencing my meditation today:
“whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things” (NIV)
“you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious – the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse” (MSG)
“if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, all that is worthy of praise” (CEB)
In addition, one line in the Desiderata so wisely shares:
“Speak your truths quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even to the dull and ignorant;
they too have their story.”
(I am reminded, though I cannot find a source to cite whether it is true or not, that I once heard that John Wesley said or wrote that we should be willing to humbly listen to others, for we have something to learn even from the poorest of preachers.)
How often do I allow my own thoughts, opinions, or preferences to blind me to the earnest expressions of another? How often do I subtly or overtly criticize another? How often do I do violence to another through my choice of words, or tone, or how I respond to them?
As this annual gathering of clergy continues, one of the topics that has arisen between us is how to have conversations around difficult and divisive issues. What strikes me as imperative for such to occur – whether in our churches or anywhere – is to do away with the weapons of violence we all to often wield in order to win arguments or proselytize others to our perspective. Sarcasm and cynicism must needs be set aside if we are truly to talk with one another; we need to remember our first rule “first, by doing no harm” and live out the “higher calling” Paul reminds us of in Ephesians 4:2, being “humble and gentle… patient, bearing with one another in love,” to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (Again, all citations at the front of my Journal – wise words to reflect on, from a younger me. Journaling is kind of like time-travelling, you know?!)
So let me close by sharing a short prayer I found myself writing earlier:
Lord, deliver me from these forms of subtle negativity, criticism, and cynicism
that masquerade as humor or critique.
Lead me to see the good and pure and holy, and encourage such in others. Amen.
**Just a side note, as I do realize that sometimes we oversimplify faith and/or God in prayer. I don’t know how anyone could do any better with skewering how our simplicities or preferences emerge in the language we might use than Will Ferrel’s prayer in Taladega Nights…