A seminary professor of mine, Stephanie Paulsell, once talked about a dilemma she experienced as part of the diverse worshiping community of Harvard Divinity School (HDS). HDS is both an ecumenical and a multi-faith environment, and every Wednesday we would gather to create ‘suspended space’ and to worship together. At times it got confusing and awkward, as you would imagine, but other times it was powerful and unexpectedly beautiful to be interpreting our traditions to one another. (Just to give you an example, one week worship would be led by Harambee, the black student union, with lively hymns and preaching and the next week by the HDS Islamic community, who prepared and shared with us all a traditional meal to break the fast of Ramadan and gathered in a corner of the cafeteria to face Mecca and pray, kneeling again and again in a beautifully fluid motion to rest their foreheads on the ground.)
Stephanie noticed an unusual phenomenon within herself related to these Wednesday worship services: the more different a tradition was from her own (Stephanie is a Disciples of Christ pastor) the more willing she was to cut them some slack. She would pretty much happily do whatever was asked of her (cover her head, speak, not speak, eat, not eat, sit on the floor etc) to get to participate in a worship experience from another religion. However, she said the hairs on the back of her neck would rise and her indignation with it if a Christian denomination asked women to sit in the back or cover their hair, so much so that it became almost impossible to even sit through the worship service, much less actually use it as a time to commune with God. ** Now just to
clarify, neither Stephanie nor I really can abide women being put in an inferior position in any tradition, but read on for her broader point. **
Stephanie named this phenomenon ‘The challenge of the proximate other.’ i.e. the more different someone is, the easier in some ways it can be to create space for mutual engagement, relationship, and dialogue. However, if someone is really similar to you (or to your group) and uses mostly the same vocabulary, tells the same stories, etc. but is not exactly the same then all those specific differences are brought into relief. And often used to define one group against another (baptism by ‘sprinkling’ verses ‘immersion’ comes to mind.)
Tonight we start the first of our summer series exploring the various ‘flavors’ that comprise the broth of Church in the Cliff. Last week we talked about the unique history of the church as an urban and welcoming place started by a visionary female pastor and generously funded by three area Baptist churches. So it makes sense to start with the Baptist denomination as it was foundational to the church, even as we recognize that folks from a dozen or more traditions make up the Citc community today.
Each week we will ask roughly the same questions of those who claim a certain identity either as their church of origin or as an important identity to this day. The questions are: 1) What do you love (about your tradition), 2) What have you chosen to leave behind? and 3) What do you think your tradition contributes to the unfolding identity of Church in the Cliff?
Join us tonight for Baptists, baked beans, and Paul’s homemade mashed potatoes. All are welcome to participate in what will likely be a lively conversation!