RUDYARD KIPLING Photo by Roger-Viollet / Rex Features ( 443052f )
When I wrote my credo as part of my preparation for pastoral ministry, I gave it the title, “The Power and Passion of God.” I took my theme from Psalm 62:11-12a,
“Once God has spoken;
twice have I heard this:
that power belongs to God,
and steadfast love belongs to you, O Lord.”
I wanted to express the fact that our sovereign God acts for our sake continually out of God’s hesed for us from everlasting to everlasting.
Those who critiqued my credo were not crazy about the title. My guess is that the range of meanings for “passion” made them uncomfortable. But I stood my ground, and it still makes complete sense to me. In fact, the ambiguity of the word seems appropriate for our understandings of God, populated by the wide range of characterizations of the divine that we infer from the many stories in Scripture.
I’ve begun reading Wesley Granberg-Michaelson’s From Times Square to Timbuktu, a scholarly but accessible treatment of the drastic changes in global Christianity, particularly over the past century. The “denominalization” of the church is credited, at least in part, with our tendency to separate over issues of theology, power, geography, and cultural bias.
Every pastor has seen it up close, in microcosm, if not also having taken part in historical rifts in the church. Currently the Reformed Church in America is experiencing some anxiety over a potential split over hermeneutical issues regarding sexual identity.
My own experience with this matter stems from facilitating an ELCA congregation’s departure from that body and joining another Lutheran association, Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ. Their decision did not reflect my own bias, but it is what they needed to do in order to remain unified. It was hard, hard work, but we weathered it together, thanks be to God.
What I noticed from my perspective was that people believed and acted according to what they felt in their gut. I know of only one person who changed their stance on the issue after all the Bible studies and special speakers and sermons and prayer. Most people voted according to what they perceived as the majority opinion. Staying together was their highest value, and they acted on it. Relatively few took the time to study the relevant Scriptures, and I would say they also acted according to their personal passion. I had to concede that they were acting with integrity, even if I disagreed with the outcome.
People usually do what they think is right. In the heat of a crisis, they do not stop to think about various positions; they do what their gut tells them to do. Ironically, it is crisis that often introduces changes in perspective. It takes great upheaval to shift people’s thinking, for good or ill. If you question that, try giving up smoking or losing fifty pounds. Try changing your opinion of an in-law you never liked. It takes emotional dynamite to make the switch.
My husband and I like to watch the television drama “Madame Secretary.” The husband of the fictitious Secretary of State serves on the president’s elite intelligence team. A senior member of the team, Jose, advises him before a dangerous and covert operation in Pakistan. He cautions him against letting his passion override his common sense in the heat of the moment.
Nevertheless the team of three gets caught in a coup in Pakistan, and Jose is the one who refuses to evacuate as hordes riot outside the embassy. He wants to stay and face the dangers in order to kill the leader of a terrorist cell. In the heat of the moment, Jose himself let his passion take over, and the team encountered the predictable opposition but also prevailed in television’s transparent predictability. (They wouldn’t sacrifice the sexy male lead of a successful drama. I digress.)
Who can keep a clear head when anxiety clouds our vision? I am reminded of Rudyard Kipling’s definition of a man from his poem “If:”
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise…
Yet Kipling himself is a controversial figure, described by some historians as imperialist or even racist. Is it any surprise that we fail and fail again at seeking understanding and overcoming our differences? From an early age we seem to identify those who are different and find reasons why our way/identity/ethic is better.
Yet Jesus prayed that we would be one in his high priestly prayer of John 17. His passion, his deep desire is that we will unite as his body in the world. Why? Not so that we can avoid wrestling with legitimate perspectives that clash. Instead we need to be unified so that, together, we can participate in the ancient call of Abraham, to incarnate the eternal truth of God’s steadfast love for humankind from everlasting to everlasting.
The Holy Spirit has been given to us to make this real among us. Because the Spirit has this kind of power, and we are able to come together in that divine, limitless power, it is possible. We experience it in our best moments, and God calls us forward with the hope that it will come to pass.