Monday, April 30, 2012

Companions & Conversation

Perhaps you recall that before I went to the Episcopal Seminary in Alexandria, VA, I spent a year at a conservative, evangelical seminary on Boston’s North Shore.  Fridays there were my favorite days because we always had a fresh, sea-food salad sandwich for lunch (still the best I have ever had) and dinner was always some kind of fish straight off the dock that would have cost us poor seminarians $50 at a Boston restaurant.  Outside the entrance to the large dining hall there was a bulletin board that served as the place for the student body to carry out running discussions or debates.  Back in the mid-80’s, at that school, abortion and the role of women in the church were hot topics.  I leave it to your imagination to conjure what I saw posted there as I waited in line for my Friday fish lunch and dinner.
In hindsight, I see now how that bulletin board set the table (so to speak) for every conversation that took place in the dining hall.  I remember countless discussions, some with near strangers, where the object was to mine down through our commonly held beliefs to find a point of disagreement.  This then became the place where we met – some inconsequential nuance of the amillennial understanding of the end times or a trivial aspect of John Calvin’s thinking on total depravity.  On more than one occasion, friends parted a meal no longer friends, and strangers who broke bread departed as combatants.
Hold that image in your mind as I give you my condensed version of the 23rd Psalm, boiling down this beautiful poem to its contextual heart:
The Lord is my Host
who sets a table for me
in the presence of those who trouble me.
This, I believe, is the core of the 23rd Psalm.  The author has been invited to a meal at which his enemies will also be at table.  In the midst of this ‘threat’ the poet meditates on the image of a shepherd leading his flock and takes comfort in the knowledge that God is present with him at that table.
Two words have been with me since the beginning of Lent; they are words central to the 23rd Psalm: companion and conversation.  The word companion literally means “with bread”.  A companion is someone with whom you will break bread.  We in the Episcopal Church break a lot of bread.  Here at St. Paul’s it happens twice on Sunday and at various points throughout the year during the week.  Last year the Eucharist was celebrated in some form or fashion 139 times in and through our parish.  In addition to its frequency, our bread breaking is a sign of welcome.  Communion is open to every person baptized into the Christian faith and life regardless of age or denomination.
Through the Eucharist we become companions with one another; people who are gathered together in joy at a Table set by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Our children are the ones who exhibit this joy most clearly.  They are the ones who run up to the altar rail with bright smiles and outstretched hands.  Believe me, they don’t get excited because the wafer is the best thing they will taste all day.  They are excited because they are doing something with their parents and with all of us.  They are excited to be a companion.
As happened in that seminary dining hall, being companions often leads to conversation.  The word conversation means the “art or act of living with another.”  This definition suggests at least two things:
First, we have to talk with another in order to maintain relationship.  Amy, our parish administrator, and I have conversation every day of the work week.  It may be extensive in the office about things that need to be done or it may be a brief text she sends to me saying a child is sick and she will not be able to come in or it may be me saying I will be on the road in the morning heading to a meeting and will call to check in.  Imagine how difficult it would be for Amy and me to live together without this basic conversation. 

The second thing suggested by the definition “the art or act of living together” is the more we talk with another person the more we know about that person.  And the more we know about another person – her views on life and politics, his innermost thoughts and worries – the more we either will open ourselves to deeper companionship or withdraw from it.  It is through conversation that we determine who we want in close relationship and who we do not. 

This has a tremendous implication for the church, doesn’t it.  Ironically, it hints the less we know about another person the more we may be willing to enter into the deepest act signifying our unity – communion (with unity) – and conversely, the more we know another person the more difficult it may be to be to break bread together.
Here is a question we might want to ask of the 23rd Psalm: why would the Shepherd/Host host invite us to a meal with those who trouble us?  Wouldn’t it be a much more pleasant table if it was just the Shepherd/Host, me, and the people I like?  What kind of shepherd invites the wolf to graze with the flock?
Believe me, I have sat in silence many times in my life for long periods of time pondering this question in one form or another and I have concluded there is no sugar-coated answer easy to swallow.  Over and over again all I come up with is this: the Shepherd/Host of the psalmist is also the Shepherd/Host of the enemies.  We are all God’s children.  The Shepherd/Host extends the sign of comfort and welcome – the anointing of the head with oil after a long, hot, dry journey – to all.  The Table is made ready for all.  The over-flowing cup symbolizes God’s abundant love and grace and mercy extended to all people. 
The Genesis story of the Tower of Babel suggests that language is God’s gift to us so that, through conversation, we might learn the art and action of living together.  The story also reminds us of language’s limitations.  It is confusing at times.  We speak different dialects and even within our own tongue it is challenging to say what we mean and to hear the words of another as he or she intends them to be heard.  But the struggle and challenge of conversion is necessary because, as Jesus tells his disciples:
“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.  I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.  So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” 

Conversation – the art and act of living together – is the way the entire flock learns how to be companions – and the bread we break at Table is the very body of the Shepherd/Host who brings us together.
All of this tells me that relationships will always contain both blessing and challenge, be they in the family, among friends, at work, in the community, or here at church.  The challenge comes from knowing we are not the same.  We have different ideas, different tastes, different values, different views.  These differences can and do stretch the bonds of common affection.  The blessing of these relationships is found as we move through our differences to gather at the Table of the One who calls us together.  This Table fellowship must be important to Jesus because he gave his life for it and continues to give us his life through it today.
I want to close by sharing with you this blessing by John O’Donohue.  It is intended for a new home, but I think speaks equally well of our hope for many places in our life, including our church home:
May this house shelter your life.
When you come in home here,
may all the weight of the world
fall from your shoulders.
May your heart be tranquil here,
blessed by peace the world cannot give.
May this home be a lucky place,
where the graces your life desires
always find the pathway to your door.
May nothing destructive
ever cross your threshold.
May this be a safe place
full of understanding and acceptance,
where you can be as you are,
without the need of any mask
of pretense or image.
May this home be a place of discovery,
where possibilities that sleep
in the clay of your soul can emerge
to deepen and refine your vision
for all that is yet to come to birth.
May it be a house of courage,
where healing and growth are loved,
where dignity and forgiveness prevail;
a home where patience of spirit is prized,
and the sight of destination is never lost
though the journey be difficult and slow.
May there be great delight around this hearth.
May it be a house of welcome
for the broken and diminished.
May you have the eyes to see
that no visitor arrives without a gift
and no guest leaves without a blessing.
And I might add,
May this home be a place
where a Table is always set for you
and for those who trouble you most
   so that we may be one flock with one Shepherd.