I just completed a Doctor of Ministry class entitled, “Stop Making Sense: Searching for the Hidden God: Judaism after the Holocaust.” It was taught by a rabbi in Austin who is also an accomplished jazz musician, Neil Blumofe. As you might imagine, the subject was intense, and it brought out lots of emotions and strong opinions.
He had a phrase he used over and over as we discussed topics that were often painful or controversial. Someone in the class would offer a few words, either in response to the professor or to someone else in the class, and he would respond:
“Thank you for sharing that. I really like the way you are coming at this issue…and…”
The and was followed by another way of looking at the issue, another perspective that could be brought to bear, or an alternative voice that might argue with the one just presented. It was his way of reminding us, especially when we became sure of ourselves and our positions, that there is almost always an and…
It was our professor’s way of acknowledging that the things we were discussing were complex, with multiple points of view, and no easy resolution. There may be a “right” answer, but it would be hard for us in our human limitations to arrive at one on which we could all agree. So, instead of searching for the right answer, he invited us to consider that there might be more than one right answer, that instead of saying “I heard you, but you’re wrong,” in situations of great change and controversy, we might try saying, “I heard you, and here’s another way to look at it.”
These ands opened up a gracious space where real learning occurred. We valued each voice at the table and together tried to uncover the larger truth we were exploring, while knowing we could never, as limited human beings, arrive at absolute truth.
I thought quite a bit during my time in Austin about our meeting of the Presbytery of Middle Tennessee, which occurred on the Saturday before I left for Austin on Sunday. The presbytery took up several amendments to the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), one of which, having to do with the definition of marriage, was complex and controversial. We ended up voting in favor of all the amendments The process we used to arrive at that vote included several small group discussions, worship with communion, and very careful and respectful listening to each other, even when we did not agree. I came away from the meeting encouraged that it is possible for us to address the issues of our day in a manner that models the way of Christ, who built a church marked by reconciliation and peace in the midst of diversity.
Some left the meeting overjoyed. Some left the meeting sad and perhaps even angry. All left the meeting as part of the Body of Christ, committed to living together in the tension and uncertainty of our changing times, knowing that Christ alone is the Head of the Church. In that affirmation, we are freed to say, “Yes, I hear you, you are by brother/my sister…and…”
I left the meeting grateful to be part of the congregation I serve and the denomination to which we belong. In many ways, First Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is a model for how people can come together from a variety of places and hold a range of views while still remaining one body. We can disagree, even significantly, and yet we realize that our unity is not an achievement we can boast, but a gift from God, a sign of grace. As we continue on this journey that seems to involve great change all around us, may we be ever mindful of the quiet center that never changes – the presence of Christ, who claims us in Baptism, addresses us in the Word, and nourishes us at the Table. It is only from that center that we are able to speak with each other in honesty and love.
I didn’t realize at the time, but the professor was conducting our class like a jazz concert, unafraid of improvising, welcoming the discordant note, making room for all the instruments, and striving to make of this diversity a unity that reflects, however imperfectly, something of the beauty and truth of God. May it be so for this church that God calls to be a blessing to the world