Susan B. W Johnson is pastor of Hyde Park Union Church in Chicago.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, Jan. 22, 1997, p. 75, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
There’s a deep human tendency to idolize one’s own perspective on the world.
I remember that only the nerds were crossing guards. No one else would want to wear the badge of looking both ways and always crossing with the light. I remember how as Girl Scouts we obediently wore our uniforms, but also deftly broke the school dress code by hemming the skirts well above the knee. We all believed that our knowledge of what was right would save us; we were adept at explicating our behavior. We thought our risky adventures shouldn’t be counted against us, and somehow we all knew we were going to turn out OK.
During this time there was only one thing with the power to mortify my existential truculence — the worshipful presence of my youngest brother, ten years younger, a little guy for whom everything we said and did was important, clever and true. I loved him and thought I would do anything for him, though I was loathe to let his existence modify my behavior.
Some of these sentiments belong to the myopia and self-absorption of youth, but some reflect a deeper human impatience which outlasts adolescence, an arrogance which idolizes one’s own perspective on the world. The Corinthians, for instance, knew that the gods of idol-worshipers did not exist, so they ate meat which had been sacrificed to these gods — until Paul wrote to them about how their liberality confused those who were struggling, how the impunity of the strong could undermine the development of the weak. At Corinth Paul met an aggressive spiritual striving which was not matched by concern for people. Deep-seated impatience and presumptuousness characterized the Corinthians. It was as though the Corinthians’ very efforts to comprehend Christ’s selfless love had somehow sucked the love out of them.
In his letter Paul resorted to the Corinthians’ own language about the strong and the weak, turning it on its head, saying that those who presumed themselves strong in fact revealed themselves to be weak, reminding them that God chose the weak and the foolish to shame the strong and wise. He Went on to criticize the Corinthians for their opinionated quarrelsomeness, their slippery morality, their unwarranted boasting. They exasperated him by turning the Lord’s Supper into a series of private parties at which some people gorged themselves and became drunk while others got nothing to eat.
And yet it was to these people, to this divisive and anxious fellowship, that Paul wrote one of the most eloquent reflections on what love is, and what it is not. Paul understood that in Corinth the spiritual pride of comprehension had supplanted the leadership of love.
We too deeply resent changing our behavior for the sake of other people. We resent what appears to be obedience to the letter of the law when we think that the spirit of the law gives us a little more space. Yet spiritual leadership is often counterintuitive — in order to lead one must sometimes slow down.
Last year a dear friend of mine, a rabbi, died. He was eulogized by a colleague who made us smile when he said that Danny did not suffer fools gladly, but he would suffer them for a good, long time. Danny was quick and intelligent, but he was also pastoral, patient and kind. What Paul asks the Corinthians is whether they see the value, the love, in suffering anyone at all.
We are like the Corinthians in our love of quick intelligence, in our contempt for slowness, in our fear of weakness, in our obsession with strength. Even in the church we clothe our resentment and. incapacity in authority and power.
A collection of stories with unlikely potency is Edward Foley’s Developmental Disabilities and Sacramental Access, a little handbook on preparing young people with developmental disabilities for the sacraments, and on accepting their ways of accepting the sacraments. He tells this true story: Four groups met to prepare children with disabilities for the sacrament of confirmation. The pastor and parents agreed on a date, and decided to request the presence of the bishop. The pastor tried unsuccessfully to contact the bishop to tell him how the liturgy would be simplified. The pastor asked the bishop to come early to meet the members of the group, and encouraged him to move through the service slowly so that each candidate could come forward with his or her family and not be confused.
But the bishop didn’t arrive until just before the celebration, He seemed uncomfortable. His homily was addressed to the parents, encouraging them to bear the cross God had given them. He seemed pressed for time and created a minor traffic problem by trying to hurry things.
The bishop rejected the presentation of bread baked by one of the groups and sent the master of ceremonies to the sacristy for a large white host. He then partook of the white host and sat down. Other priests gave communion to those with disabilities. The confirmands were distraught and angered by the actions of the bishop. The service was not what they had hoped it would be.
Foley’s story shows us what the practice of Christ’s love entails. In the practice of this love, the presumed strong become the revealed weak, and God uses even that which is not to bring to nothing the things that are.