Lots of different kinds of people need Jesus, and they need him in lots of different ways. That thought remains with me as the conversation warms up among Episcopalians about our church language, and its inclusive or exclusive nature (read more about it here).
While a city editor at a community newspaper earlier in my bi-vocational career, my work included coaching writers. Frustrated reporters would come to me for help when particularly struggling with a story. Bogged down and writing in circles, they had climbed so deep inside their own experience, they had temporarily lost contact with the one ability every good news writer possesses: seeing things from the perspective of the reader. That is to say, writing as if the person reading the story doesn’t know what you know, and hasn’t seen what you have seen – because in reality, chances are they don’t, and they haven’t.
Here’s a technique that usually solved the problem: I’d ask a reporter to imagine they were home at the end of the day, relating to their friend or spouse what they’d witnessed. Very often, the first few words out of their mouth became the lead, the first sentence in a news story. Those initial words were usually the foundation on which they were able to build a stronger, clearer story structure.
It worked because they began to look at telling a story not as artificially rebuilding an experience, but as the evolution of an experience into the ongoing work of figuring out what a certain event means, and its impact on community life, related in terms that have no concern for maintaining social barriers. It works because it’s in our nature to want to communicate in ways we can understand and be understood, an expression of the God who is in us, who desires to know us and to be known. As a writer, if you stay connected to the reader’s perspective, it doesn’t matter whether you use simple or complex language, as long as you remember to take the reader along with you. Hard or easy, no one wants to read a story that makes no effort to address what they care about. We are all different, and we all need Jesus in different ways. The common link is that, differences or not, we all need him.
Differences can be important. It is important for me, as a foreign-born American child of two Caucasian-American parents, to listen and attempt a level of understanding about the impact of shared language on a community which includes various cultures. Before we get to cultural concerns, the Episcopal language discussion begins with an evaluation of churchy terms. Is the room you enter before reaching the worship space a foyer? Nave? Vestibule? Lobby? Is it a worship space, Nave, Sanctuary, or just “the church?” After the temporal discussion, we move to the more difficult to put a finger on: How do we talk about what we call mission, without forgetting the very different historical experience of Native Americans and other people around the world, who have suffered at the hands of missionaries? How to integrate that into the different experience of those for whom mission holds important meaning to their historical identity as Christians, sent into the world in the name of Jesus?
It is certainly true that some language is exclusive to some cultures, and must be considered in the wider appeal and sensitivity of the Church. As both a female and a member of the clergy, I certainly appreciate gender-inclusive language in Scripture and liturgy, and have become so accustomed to it in the majority of my Episcopal community work that I feel with some difficulty its absence in other settings, evoking the lack of it in the Scripture and worship of my younger years in a different denomination. I can only imagine the pain of a native culture struggling to feel at home in a Church it cherishes, the same entity historically responsible for some of its cultural wounds. From these discussions unspoken questions emerge: “Whose experience matters more?” “What ground am I called to give up in preserving the dignity of other human beings?” “How do I find a comfortable space in the ground that remains?” “How do we achieve groundlessness?”
We are Episcopalians. Throwing our arms open wide and inviting others to join us is what we do. Gathering to sit at the table with those whom the world shuns is what we do. Kneeling in unity beside those who are different from us, to be fed together from God’s table is what we are called to do. Surely there is room in our broad and creative Church for both those who find beauty and acceptance in simplicity, and those nourished through the dance of complex language. Surely there is common ground for those whose cultural experiences are opposite but whose Savior sacrificed himself to bring all into communion with the Father.
We are Episcopalians. We are the people of the Middle Way. As I heard Bishop Jeff Fisher say last week when he visited my church at St. Paul’s, Woodville, in the Diocese of Texas, “We are the Church of both-and.” Catholic and Protestant, male and female, struggling and free, we are all one in Christ Jesus.We are all different. And we need Jesus in different ways. But we all need him. Examining the changing experience of our shared language expressions in the Church is fine, as long as we don’t go so far in charting and languishing in our linguistic differences that we forget to approach everything we do from the perspective of the people who need the Gospel story we have to tell. We can focus on our differences, or we can work for unity strengthened by standing together and holding up the world’s needs to our Lord, inviting everyone to be a part of the varied and beautiful ways to experience Jesus.