Last Tuesday, I was in the Washington National Cathedral, listening to a fabulous panel of speakers sharing their reflections on the need for civility in the public discourse. The panelists were David Axelrod (senior advisor to Pres. Barack Obama), Joshua Bolton (chief of staff to former Pres. George W. Bush), Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), Rev. Dr. Barry Black (Senate chaplain), Michael Beschloss (presidental historian), and Bob Schieffer (CBS News). It was an honor to listen to each of them speak about their thoughts & experiences of the lack of civility within our government & one another, especially over the last few years. I was struck by the commonality between Mr. Axelrod & Mr. Bolton's experiences within the White House dealing with the lack of cooperation and willingness to listen to others when working on important issues. I was also struck by Dr. Black's reflections on his work at the US Senate - he holds a weekly prayer breakfast that is attended by many on both sides of the aisle, as well as a weekly Bible study where members share their own faith journey stories with one another. What a powerful witness of connection and trust that does not seem to exist on the Senate floor, not to mention throughout our country. (I must admit - I really want to take Dr. Black's job at some point...being the Senate chaplain would be an amazing experience! We shall see what God has planned for this minister...)
Over the past week, I've been thinking about and chewing on this idea of embracing civility, especially with those whom we might disagree with. All over the airwaves, all we hear anymore is candidates attacking each other, using hurtful words about one another. Election seasons are always heated times, but I think we have moved into a new season of incivility that is destroying our abilities to speak with one another & talk about hard issues. I am certainly guilty of calling a candidate for office "a poltical baffoon" and "an unqualified crazy person on the absolute fringe of society". I know this is not helpful and I should be much more tolerant - I consider myself a pretty tolerant individual. And, I believe all of this negative name calling, loud shrilling on television and radio is really impacting our call to be brothers & sisters in Christ.
Today, I was at a lovely lunch gathering with several other area pastors from my Presbytery. We gather monthly at the home of a retired Presbyterian minister & his wife to share a meal and engage in often interesting and thought-provoking conversation on a range of issues. This particular gathering has been going for many, many years. I was invited to join the conversation in February, shortly after arriving here. Today was especially poignent, as the couple are preparing to sell their home & move into a retirement community. Several around the table had been there for over 10 years, sharing the same simple meal of soup & chicken salad, and talking about many different issues. What struck me was the level of civility around the table - it is a safe place to bring our thoughts, our reflections, our experiences, knowing that it was okay. We talked about theology & preaching, especially about how we each approach our preaching preparation and writing. We talked about focus & function statements (made me think of being in Anna Carter Florence's intro to preaching class!), chiasms (memories of Bill Brown!), the homilectical loop, and much more. We all take a different path to our sermon preparation and certainly different approaches to social issues, but we all are able to come to the table. Each of us had a place there and it was safe. And sacred. Holy time spent around a simple meal and great exchanges of ideas. It was a prilivage to be a part of the conversation. I learned a lot and gained wisdom from those who are experienced pastors. I am honored and consider myself blessed to be in their company.
Civility is possible. It is about meeting each other, around a common table, and be honest & open about who we are. That is where it begins.