Sunday School and Poker

Sunday School and Poker

Recently I visited an adult Sunday School class in a nearby town. It was, well – unusual, surprising, and helpful to my understanding of some of our current culutural divides. In this class leadership is shared among the members.  Folks volunteer and can schedule their time as “teacher.” Greet Idea with lots of benefits.  You can learn about musical instruments, Buddhism, jogging, or one of the Biblical Prophets.  The class is filled with thoughtful and faithful people. It is in my mind one good model of excellence in congregational life.  It is a place of sharing and care.  One quickly can tell that there is much mutual affection in the group as there is an abundance of teasing and laughter. As John Wesley put it, there is a generous dollop of “watching over one another in love” stirred into the weekly fellowship. All to the good.

It is also a place where the divisions and distortions of our current political situation are offered. Among the many points of view, the many topics covered, sometimes a heavy dose of MAGA partisanship is brought to the lectern by the volunteer teacher.  I visited one Sunday morning when the Gospel-linked understandings of faith got more than a little garbled by Fox News “truths.”

That’s okay, good even.  I knew that there would be open conversation and a range of perspectives in this class.  Here is an opportunity for dialogue and the gentle corrections possible through friendship.  I have often thought that Sunday School classes and post-church-parking-lot-conversations serve as a seedbed for improved democracy.  I saw some of that in the class that day. I also witnessed the ways strongly held beliefs or ideological frameworks can disfigure the core message of Jesus of Nazareth.

I knew that members of the Sunday School class cared for this good man, filled with worrisome opinions and muddled prejudices. They knew of his real-life challenges. They were neighbors to one another. They offered each a place of respect. We all face challenges, whether betrayal, addiction, loss of health or loss of a spouse. We all know the dilemmas of fractures with friends or family. We all face loss of health or opportunity.

The volunteer teacher that morning proclaimed that from his studies, there was no guarantee the scriptures were the authoritative word of God, or that Jesus ever told the Good Samaritan story.  He then offered that the best framework for life is found in a poker game. “Each person at the table is dealt a hand at birth; that is the hand we play in life.” The cards one is dealt limit options, but he said this “will also offer some opportunities. The idea is to play the hand you are dealt as best you can when sitting at the poker-table-of-life.  Trying to help people can only hurt them if they haven’t been dealt the right cards.”

Wow!! Quite a framework. Quite a set of assumptions, all wrapped at the edges in the class-warfare encouraged by the Trumpian politics of our time.  In A Farewell to Arms Ernest Hemmingway writes: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”  I prefer the answer Jesus gives to the question “And who is my neighbor?”  It begins, “There was a certain man…”

Pondering this in recent weeks, I come to two conclusions: 

  1. There is no coherence to the MAGA movement. It is polyform, a muddle of prejudice, half-truths, wishful thinking, grievance and a struggle for self-esteem. As much as it may claim Christianity as source, it is often (mostly?) untethered from the Gospels.  It is also thickly covered over, cocooned, if you will, by the belief that others are cheating, getting something they don’t deserve. Interestingly, it is a modern Gnosticism, – a belief in a special knowledge each individual may garner by watching the correct rightwing television or a scouring of questionable internet sites.
  2.  Such gatherings at this Sunday School class, and other venues where diversity is welcomed and where all are respected, are all too rare.  These places are a most needed antidote to our current social/cultural/religious divides.

I will plan to return to this class – in part because all the other Sunday School classes I know of near me are filled with folks who all think alike.  I guess this is the poker hand I have been dealt.

My One Question

My One Question

What would you ask?  If you could ask only one question of the candidates for the presidency of the United States what would it be? 

Tonight we will see the spectacle of the first presidential debates among the candidates of the Republican Party.  Several television and newspaper pundits are suggesting the questions that “must be asked by” the moderator.  For example, Tom Friedman suggests candidates be asked about an increase in the gasoline tax to pay for our crumbling highway infrastructure.  He notes this is something that Ronald Reagan supported upon his election and might help determine which candidates would be able to lead beyond narrow ideological constraints.  (See: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/05/opinion/thomas-friedman-my-question-for-the-republican-presidential-debate.html?src=me&_r=0).  Friedman also suggests questions on immigration and carbon tax credits.  Good questions — just not my question.

There is another group called Circle of Protection that would ask the candidates what they would do to end hunger and poverty in our nation.  Several of the candidates, in both parties, have posted video responses to this excellent question (see: circleofprotection.us).  This too is a marvelous question — a truly important question.  The video responses by candidates that have already been made are helpful — revealing of core beliefs.

However, most of the questions suggested by the pundits are designed to elicit a provocative response, something that will pit one candidate against another.  Most of the suggested questions have little to do with policy or vision and much to do with demeaning another candidate.  Clearly, the hope is to start a political food fight!   Most of the suggested quarries by the television talking-heads are designed to generate more heat than light.  These suggestions are a version of the old school yard taunt “Lets you and him fight!”  How interesting that on August 6th, Hiroshima Day, our nation’s attention turns to a forum where many are hoping to see a fight.

My one question would be this: WHO IS MY NEIGHBOR? 

It comes from my enduring preoccupation with the Gospel parable we often refer to as the story of the Good Samaritan.  I prefer to call it the Parable of the Unexpected Neighbor.  My preoccupation with this particular parable is shaped by the reading of the social philosopher Ivan Illich.  Illich returns to this story again and again as a theme in his analysis of modern institutions.  He notes our misguided efforts to provide professional solutions to problems that require, first and foremost, a neighborly community and a commitment to common conviviality.

Huntington Library Gardens
Huntington Library Gardens, Image of St. Francis

I believe the story of the Good Samaritan has been domesticated, romanticized and distorted in meaning.  I hold that in answering the question “Who is my neighbor?” one will hear from the respondent the core commitments of that person.  This is a “template narrative.”  It uncovers a human gestalt — points to the baseline of meaning. The answer to this question has shaped the lives of people throughout the ages, from St. Francis to Mother Teresa, from Ghandi to Thomas Merton.

Who is my neighbor?  The answer suggests so much — from a compassion for the stranger, to an openness to the foreigner, and a welcoming of the alien, alternative solutions to vexing problems.  It is a question that allows the responder to share ideas that might give us larger purpose and expanded hope.  Yes, the theme of care for the neighbor challenges our propensity to selfishness, bigotry and violence; I believe it offers us even more, when we grasp the dimensions of how this story and its context might shape our perspectives today.

Ivan Illich was once asked, “Given what you suggest about institutions, what is the best way to make change, violent revolution or gradual reform?” Illich answered, “Neither, the best way to bring change is to give an alternative story.” (in David Cayley’s, The Rivers North of the Future).

Over the next several postings I will expand on the wonder of this parable and the power of the question asked of Jesus by the young man in Luke 10:25-37.  I believe it opens us to a remarkably powerful, alternative story — maybe the most powerful alternative story available to humanity!

My plans this evening do not include watching “the debate.”  There will be plenty more where these came from.  I wonder what questions will be asked.  Were I given just one question, it would be — WHO?  WHO IS MY NEIGHBOR?