There’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos

jeffclow.jpg

My political and theological views are pretty progressive. But, when I got out of seminary, I figured that I was a person who could serve just about any church. And I did. I served two different small congregations, one in Louisiana and one in Rhode Island. Both had members with much more conservative viewpoints than mine.

For the most part, it wasn’t a problem. They had to sit through some uncomfortable sermons, and I had to hear some upsetting stories. But, we worked well together. And after a couple of years, we learned to love each other through any differences. Well, again–for the most part–I do suspect there were a couple of people who held a going away party after I left.

But I couldn’t just say anything. For six years, when various ecclesial issues arose, when Bush became president (twice!), when the war in Iraq began, I often had to calculate the cost of what came out of my mouth. I would even participate in protests without telling certain members of my church.

Perhaps it’s my own character flaw. Perhaps I should just be able to say whatever’s on my mind and live with the consequences. Be more prophetic.

But I couldn’t. For part of those years, I thought about my child. Brian was home, taking care of her, and the weight of being the breadwinner was something I always felt.

I’m in a progressive church now. There are very few things that I can’t say here, as a peace-loving feminist. I spend a lot less time worrying, and a lot more time ministering. With that freedom, my preaching’s gotten much more authentic and a whole lot better.

And I can’t help but notice that my writing’s gone from a crashing, swirling, damned-up pool to a steady, flowing stream, because I’m not calculating the consequences of every word. My mind has more space to think. I don’t have to worry about losing my job if someone takes the time to read what I have to say. I have more creativity here, I sense the Spirit moving more.

I write all of this because I notice people trying to carve out a “middle way” in our denomination. And that’s great, if people do have truly moderate positions. Wonderful.

But then, I often hear people disparage anyone whose thinking resides too far to the left or too far to the right. And I wonder, But, what if I belong on the edge? Is there any room for me?

Plus, I’m not sure if I’d be able to stay in the middle, even if I wanted to. The middle’s always moving, depending on who my conversation partner is, or what part of the country I’m in. I find a lot of people think that their position is the normative position.

So, is there any way that we can move our discussions from looking for some sort of middle ground to allowing freedom for people? Instead of rushing to moderation, could we each forge a path where we are and have a vision for more than one way? Or is that an inherently liberal position?

You know, I’m just concerned about all those people who are trying to find their way. I know there are members in our church who couldn’t attend most congregations in the country. But they’ve found a path to God in our progressive Christian community. And, I admit, I’m concerned about me. And other leaders on this path. Because it’s just so much easier when we don’t have to pretend to be a moderate.

The title’s from a Jim Hightower book. I originally uploaded this photo, because it was so perfect, but it was kind of making me sick, and a little sad. The new photo’s by jeffclow.

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14 thoughts on “There’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos

  1. I hear you, Carol. I think of a middle way as less as the compromise between left and right, but more a way not to write-off either side.

    As one who may be in your very same position in a year’s time, I think identifying myself as “a peace-loving feminist” is probably not the way forward. I anticipate your exact challenge, though: how do I be authentically myself, and not anger those who are more conservative.

    The answer for me this year has included emphasizing relationships and preaching really closely to Bible texts (if they call for peace, saying that, if they call for talk of sin, saying that) and I think people find me a bit hard to pin down. I’m liberal, but I keep talking about the Bible? I preach love, and…eschatology?

    Feeling a bit too self-focused, I’ll leave things there. I look forward to reading others’ responses.

    A Wee Blether

  2. I don’t have a bunch of time right now but will hopefully be back later–just want to say right this minute that I definitely appreciate the change of photos!!

  3. Yes! As an Episcopalian/Anglican – we pride ourselves on being the via media, but that seems to mean exactly what you say: we somehow equate *being* a middle way with having to be in the middle. They aren’t the same thing, and I’m not interested in driving on a road thats only as wide as that yellow line, to stretch the metaphor.

  4. I’m not a fan of being moderate just for the sake of being moderate. I don’t get why being moderate is a virtue in and of itself. Sometimes, the only way you get at a problem is by tearing it out by the roots. The word “radical” derives from the Latin word for root. I would contend that Jesus was a radical. As were the people who founded the US in the late 18th century.

  5. I think left/right, liberal/conservative are labels of comfort in an assumed order of reality. When either pole disrupts that order a category is applied that is the opposite of that order. For instnace I am fundamentally pro-life but I do think that abortion is necessary, not just acceptable in some cases. I also think based on my pro-life position that full affirmation of homosexual relationships that are mutually committed and monogamous, etc, should be fully included in the worship and life of the church and civilization. So I am not moderate because I do not moderate much between these two poles, but I do synthesize two views in a different way than most. So I tend to piss people off on both sides. Also, I do not see a difference between faith and reason and you cannot have one without the other. That drives atheists and Christians nuts in a lot of places.

    I have assumed the descriptor of progressive because I think that our theology progresses as our stages of life progress. Just like a crazy three year old one day will raise a crazy three year old, so our relationship with God and how we think of God must change as our life experiences increase. To do otherwise is not allowing one’s self to be human. So I like a faith that is expressed on the margins of acceptability because somehow there is more truth in the tension than anywhere else.

  6. Carol,
    As a minister in a city that is home to Barksdale Air Force Base (one half of our merged congregation was founded as a mission church to the Base back in the ’50s) and a membership that is comprised of many retired military (I also have several members who are currently serving in Iraq/Afghanistan), I can tell you that I struggle with this every day. I love my conservative/moderate folks just as much as I love the liberal/progressive ones, but it is really hard to NOT preach how I honestly feel. And when I do, I have to worry if I’ve made somebody mad, which I am pretty sure I did Christmas Eve when Peace was my focus. It is not healthy for us to have to live like this! I know, I know, I’ve got to get out of here!

  7. I agree with you that finding a middle ground is not always the best way forward. It’s kind of like the all too common type of inter-religious dialog that only talks about least common denominator issues. I think inter-religious dialog is always more meaningful when the conversation partners come to the table fully immersed and representative of their particular traditions.

    The same can be said for our internal conversations as well. It’s true that we need to make efforts to recognize what binds us together, but we also need to recognize that Christianity (or the Presbyterian Church or whatever) is a wide enough tent to include those that would identify themselves as either “conservative” or “progressive” or something else entirely. This would be more authentic to both the realities of human life and our faith tradition itself.

  8. “I’m in a progressive church now. There are very few things that I can’t say here, as a peace-loving feminist. I spend a lot less time worrying, and a lot more time ministering. With that freedom, my preaching’s gotten much more authentic and a whole lot better.”

    I can certainly resonate with that. I kept telling myself and a few others when I was in my previous congregation, “I want to do ministry, not fight about whether I can do ministry.” That includes preaching and whatever. It doesn’t mean either of us has a free ticket. There are limits in odd places and we find them by hitting them.

    I think people really do have different roles for a church or even a denomination. If moderate means what I think it means, it is the very difficult role of keep the edges in–not reigning in, but making sure there is space for all the edges in the umbrella. The moderates role is to widen the umbrella. It is like saying I don’t agree with A or with B. But we need both A and B. I am not sure, just a thought.

  9. Teri,

    What about the one I posted? Check out that armadillo. I think he looks like Elvis. He’s, like, way too cool for his bucket.

    Beth! Welcome to the blogosphere!

    John,

    You’re right! I’ve had different pockets of freedom in each of my congregations. My freedom right now is in the pulpit. But I’ve developed in other areas in other congregations.

    I love the thought that the middle ground is “a way not to write-off either side.” I can appreciate that….

  10. Carol,

    I’ve been thinking about this post for a couple of days now (and not just because of the dead armadillo). It has been freeing for me to allow congregational members to know that I am not middle-of-the-road. I had a Bush-supporting, retired Air Force Colonel tell me that he respected me for not hiding who I am — because he felt that I would respect his passionate views more if I held passionate views myself. I agree that it is easier when you don’t have to pretend to be moderate, but I don’t think that this only has to happen in a church where most of the members are progressive.

  11. First, it makes me unbelievably happy to know that Western has given you the freedom you describe. I think the church has to be, first and foremost, a free, non-threatening space for us to explore our faith, fears, hopes and hopes.
    Second, I think many more congregations could be such a space but we convince ourselves they aren’t. The very understandable fears you courageously describe can and do take control of us. It takes a lot of support from the Holy Spirit to speak one’s mind and then deal with the initial flack. But after a while, in most situations, I am convinced that people will begin to relish the freedom the pastor is displaying—wanting to support it and enjoy some of it themselves. Just as censorship breeds censorship. I think freedom breeds freedom. If we use our bully pulpits to display and encourage freedom, freedom will grow before our very eyes. The same kind of tolerance and acceptance has to pervade educational programs and governing bodies in the congregation.
    That being said, there are congregations where fear has taken control to the point where free-thinking won’t be tolerated. Speaking one’s mind in those situations leads to disaster. So to me, when looking for a call, each of us needs to try and discern whether the possibility for openness exists in any given congregation. I’m convinced it does in more congregations than most of us think.
    Too much time is spent in the church telling war stories of how we got abused for something we said. We need to spend more time talking about times we dared to speak out and got positive results and affirming feedback.

  12. Pingback: TribalChurch.org

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