Monday, January 27, 2014

Cursing and the Cloth -- Potty Mouthed Pastors Response

Conversation on a friend’s blog exploded this week when he addressed the topic of clergy who use profane language, specifically at the Christianity21 conference (advertised as a gathering of 21 provocative thinkers addressing some of the most controversial topics in American Christianity, so we’re not talking about a synod assembly here.)

I found myself unable to stop formulating responses in my head. My response is below…

Erik –

I, too, applaud your bravery in inviting and continuing the conversation on this topic. To address the conversation thus far, it seems the fundamental beliefs of the participants are in opposition, which overshadows the tenor of the responses but is not the topic up for debate. In essence, they are debating the very topics that have caused a chasm between the faith communities in which the participants learn and worship.  Not likely something that will be resolved via blog comments.

After a good deal of thought, I am reminded that we are reading the story of God’s work in and through his people through different basic assumptions about God.

Do we see God as an authority who demands an ultimate sacrifice to set the scales of justice right and allow us the opportunity to repent of our sins and once again be right with him? A God repeatedly frustrated by the Israelites when they blatantly refused to bend to his will, forcing him to cast them away time and again so they would then find themselves in need and repent. A God who sent his son to be the sacrifice for this ungrateful people so that they would finally come to him?

Or do we see God as the ultimate source of all life, who created humans to long for relationship with him and with one another and who grieves at our sinful selves, not as a judge who will exact justice, but as a father who sees his children hurting and alone and wishes only that they would run to him to be reconciled and made whole. A God who demonstrated this love through the Old Testament by setting up the just system of sacrifice to atone for sin, which ultimately left humanity to succumb repeatedly to its sinful nature, unable to pull out of the cycle, forcing humanity to see again and again that we cannot be redeemed simply by the force of our own will and ability to be good. And this God then sent Christ, his son, as the ultimate expression of his great love for us and desire to reconcile all of creation to himself.  And what we could not do absent of the cross became possible when we observe the cross and respond to that amazing act of love and grace in our now but not yet imperfect ways. 

So these are two of the possible natures of God. A God that would demand perfection would certainly not be okay with cursing so there's no need for further debate there, but a God of reconciliation. Well, that is a good question.

As to my experience with cursing clergy, which is very little, I read Pastrix, and found Nadia Bolz-Weber’s prose to be accessible, honest and human in ways that drew me into her story and brought me face to face with realities of grace and the cross. The language in the book was honest and real and none of it stunned me. I also enjoy reading her sermons online, a nice way to add another perspective to the prior week's Gospel. There is a curse word here or there, but certainly nothing I find offensive.

Having grown up for a while in a home that spewed anger and hate and used cursing to wound (and the f-bomb in particular), I hate the word. It makes my skin crawl, and I avoid it at all costs. Hearing certain types of profanity evokes such a visceral response that I find it difficult to enjoy otherwise entertaining movies and music when laced with f-bombs that do not seem contextually relevant but are being used just for the sake of the word. When it comes to using profanity to reach people, I would certainly not be the intended audience.

But absent my emotional attachment, words are just that. Words. They only have meaning based on our shared understanding in combination with context. No word in and of itself is sinful. No word in and of itself can bring back old wounds, it is the context I bring to it. It is not the saying of the word "Lord" or "God" that is sinful but how it is used, “in vain.” It is a word we have constructed to communicate the attributes we assign to it. We give words power by the way we use or do not use them. The F-bomb only has the power we give it.

I wonder if the context of the Christianity21 conference was one in which it was understood that swearing would be acceptable and all present should be ready to be subject to it? Had I gone to it as an aspiring church ministries coordinator, would I have found myself uncomfortable and out of place? Were participants alienated by the tenor of the language?

That, for me, is where the meat of the issue lies. Honestly, I think a pastor can communicate in any way in which he or she is comfortable in their social settings and among trusted colleagues with whom they have developed a rapport and respect. When they are in the world, context matters and to me that is a matter of personal discernment for each individual.