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Wrangling Over Words

It was October of 1998 when the US House of Representatives voted to commence impeachment proceedings against the 42nd president of the United States, for “high crimes and misdemeanors” which were lying under oath and obstruction of justice.

I was a sophomore in college and public places with TVS started airing the events live on newly launched cable news networks. They all seemed to repeat ad-nauseum late night and in punditry the words the President had shared with his lawyer late that prior summer, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”

To be sure October 2019 has brought us a very different set of circumstances and we are in the same place, but also a very different place. We are here for different reasons and perhaps we are right to be here. The subject matter this time is far more serious, the stakes feel higher, those with power are becoming increasingly unhinged. It is unclear how this will unfold.

And while it is a dramatically different time, with different details, different players, it also feels strangely familiar.

It feels tense and fraught. It feels like we are living in peak tribalism, where divisions have heightened, more people are frightened, walls both material and spiritual in nature are being built, relationships broken, futures feeling stolen.

It is a time where wrangling over words is a sport and shaming truth-tellers is a virtue.

Even before this current crisis in our democracy, even before a leader who threatens to destroy peoples and histories, even before claims to have “great and unmatched wisdom,” our culture was already fragmented, maybe even ripe to be driven further apart by the day. In her book Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone, sociologist and author, Brene Brown argues that there is a crisis of disconnection in this country. And activist and Civil Rights Leader Ruby Sales said this week, “Despite the promise of intimacy in a technocracy, Americans suffer from unparalleled loneliness, angst and a crisis of belonging. Welcome to the age of social fragmentation and spiritual dislocation.”

I know many of us feel it, maybe even in ways we can’t articulate. We have more technology than ever, designed and advertised to connect us with what we love and who we we love and yet…divisions abound. There is so much distance between us that there is not only misunderstanding and othering, there is loneliness, sadness and despair.

Regularly, I hear how many of you are on edge and anxious. Worried about the future and the present.

And lately I have been wondering if this disconnection and division is invading our workplaces and our homes and maybe even our life together as Beloved Community.

Because conflict seems to be waiting at every intersection and if we aren’t intentional, these patterns can creep into our lives in ways we do not want and in ways that do not serve us.

Like uninvited guests we might soon find that anger and mistrust have found their way in and have made themselves at home in our hearts.

In mainstream culture it is common to turn away when things aren’t easy, to avoid a conversation because it will be comfortable.

It is typical to “ghost” instead of saying something hard with kindness. This is a modern expression that refers to “the practice of ending a personal relationship with someone by suddenly and without explanation withdrawing from all communication.”

It is popular to escalate with words in order to win, instead of getting real or owning our part or unveiling the pain underneath.

It is a time where wrangling over words is a sport and shaming truth-tellers is a virtue.

And yet we are called to live and learn and love ourselves and our community and maybe even our world into another way. We are summoned to avoid the ruin that comes with wrangling over words.

That is part of what this letter in 2 Timothy written to the early Christian communities tells us: “avoid wrangling over words because it does no good but only ruins those who are listening. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by God, a worker who has no need to be ashamed of the truth. Avoid profane chatter, for it will lead people to the wrong places, and their talk will spread like gangrene.”

This wisdom tells us that some things just break connections. Some patterns simply heighten divisions and build walls and ruin relationships.

And we who are committed to living a life grounded in love, must guard our hearts especially in times like this. They mustn’t become hardened, in fact our call might in fact be to soften them.

The cultural forces that surround us are powerful and if we are not careful, we will simply start to mirror all of the myriad wrangling around us. If we do not make it our spiritual practice in this time to counter the madness of money and meanness, we will fall short from where God is pulling us.

As a church, we are invited to listen and hear one another across our differences, but sometimes that is just plain too hard for us. And we aren’t the only ones. Even when the church was a new idea and closer to the life of Jesus, it was hard to not conform to the world. Even with the best of intentions…

I love that the Bible includes at least one church fight, which we have here in Timothy, where we meet two people who are in a theological argument that is heavy. The text says, “Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth by claiming that the resurrection has already taken place. They are upsetting the faith of some.”

This is why we hear this in our sacred text, “avoid wrangling over words because it does no good but only ruins those who are listening.”

And right now, especially this year, this feels true. Wrangling of a certain kind is not generative, even though it is more convenient. It is the default posture of many. It leads only to the construction site for more walls.

Which means we will need to try harder because the current communal capacity for caution and compassion has been reduced. More of us must rise to the occasion. We are called to hang in even when it is hard, as part of our covenant and call as people of faith and conscience.

Even when it is common to turn away when things aren’t easy, we will remain with love.

Even when it is typical to cut off without explanation, we will keep showing up.

Even when it is popular to escalate with words in order to win, we will prayerfully stay engaged.

Brene Brown suggests that what can heal disconnection is for more of us to have places where we truly belong, where we are able to speak and live our own truth even when it is hard. She writes, “in a culture that’s rife with perfectionism and pleasing, and with the erosion of civility, it’s easy to stay quiet, hide in our ideological bunkers, or fit in rather than show up as our true selves and brave the wilderness of uncertainty and criticism… True belonging is not something we negotiate or accomplish with others; it’s a daily practice that demands integrity and authenticity…“True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness.”1

Perhaps when it comes to a divided time, like the one in which we are living, maybe in a moment infused with wrangling over words, we need this invitation from the ancient teacher Lao Tzu,

“Rushing into action, you fail. Trying to grasp things, you lose them. Forcing a project to completion, you ruin what was almost ripe…”

“Trying to understand is like straining through muddy water. Have the patience to wait! Be still and allow the mud to settle.”

In this divided and disconnected time, where conflict seems to be waiting at every intersection, let us not be conformed to hurry and worry, anger and angst.

To be sure, I don’t mean to say that we avoid hard conversations or difficult moments, rather it is almost the opposite. Instead it means we are committed to not turning away, it means we are willing to sit with discomfort, to slow down, to welcome silence, to breathe, to wait and to feel before we speak. We can stop long enough to let the mud settle.

It is a time where wrangling over words is a sport and shaming truth-tellers is a virtue, it is a moment of madness and meanness, so Beloved of God, do not conform, present yourself to God and one another as you are, with kindness and without shame. Let us guard our hearts and soften them, in God’s holy name. May it be. Amen.

1 Brené Brown, Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone”

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