Thursday, August 20, 2009

Thoughts on St. Lawrence and the debates of the day.

August 10th is my birthday, which happens to coincide with the Feast of St. Lawrence of Rome, Deacon and Martyr. While following @liturgy on twitter, I saw a link to his story and was profoundly moved by his actions. Working in politics, I appreciated the perspective we so frequently are missing that was offered by his tale. As his story hung with me for days, I felt the need to write something. I, like many others, needed a reminder of what service is and realized it was time for everyone, myself included, to take a step back from the debate we're having and remind ourselves of the need for civil discussion, and to never forget what a lasting mark a bit of well timed good humor can make.

I apologize for the length, I assure you most posts will be significantly shorter than this.

On St. Lawrence...

In these days of considerable tension, we see both a Church and a Nation torn apart by dogmatism, fundamentalism, ethnic strife, and theological and political disagreement. We hear pejorative words thrown around in the news constantly: socialism, communism, disingenuous, fundamentalist, deathers, lunatic fringe, and so on. We hear a somewhat more civil, thoughtful, and honest though no less contentious debate raging throughout the Church. It is moments like these that can make one wonder whatever happened to that bit of Matthew: “Blessed are the Peacemakers...” That part seems to have been often overlooked of late.

Though the subjects are valid for earnest and honest debate, for the most part they have been boiled down to their basest parts. Once a debate degenerates into talking points, there is no real listening. Some view this as obstinacy on the view of the participants, but who can blame them? When I was younger we had a radio station change formats, and for 24 hours straight, while sorting out their library, they played Prince’s “Party like it’s 1999.” After a few minutes in the car, we realized that we had listened to the song several times. The same thing repeated over and over very quickly became background noise. We already knew what was being said, there was no need to listen.

Unfortunately our current debate is about as interesting as a song on repeat. “Grandma Killers!” “Lunatic Fringe!” Though a decent band name, listening to that on repeat is neither productive nor useful. These are also most certainly not words that build up.
Likewise in the Church, we have a debate raging one that would appear more civil, but is impassioned nonetheless. As we debate full inclusion of those who lead, to use the sanitized term, “Alternative Lifestyles” one would think that the very existence of the Church as an institution is at risk. Without trying to over-trivialize the faithfully held positions of each side, if I did not find it so sad, I would probably find funny the thought that an institution that outlived the Roman Empire, survived crusades, wars, invasions, the Black Death, repeatedly proven scientific contradictions to fundamental dogma, and has operated over the span of three millennia could be destroyed by a member’s or clergy’s choice of partner.

It speaks to the quality of life we lead these days that our concerns are on sexuality. We no longer have to worry about many of the things that enable our very existence. Though the hungry and poor are still with us, we no longer are scrapping from meal to meal, or hoping that the winter is not so long as to starve us. Though our health-care system is far from perfect, we can cure basic diseases. Though our government has its flaws, we are free to speak our mind, and practice our religion in a way very few of our ancestors could. These luxuries were not around in Rome in 258.

During the reign of Valarian, Christians were persecuted, tortured and executed with frightening regularity. As Bishop of Rome, Sixtus II was an obvious target. His deacons, were also obvious targets. One in particular was more valuable to Valerian than the rest. As his longtime teacher and soon to be martyred Bishop was being led to his death, Lawrence followed behind calling after him. “Where are you going, my dear father, without your son? Where are you hurrying off to, holy priest, without your deacon?” Lawrence was still alive because he was in charge of administrating the Church’s goods. The Prefect of Rome gave him three days to gather all the treasures of the Church and present them to the prefecture.
For three days Lawrence scrambled frantically around Rome, collecting the jewels, money, food, holdings and other goods of the church. As soon as he could find them, they were distributed them to the poor, the sick, the elderly, the widowed, the infirm, the blind, the mute and any others who had need. He assembled a delegation of these to go with him to the prefect in three days time.

As the morning arrived, St. Lawrence reported dutifully to the Prefect of Rome with his delegation. When asked for the treasures of the Church, Lawrence held out his arms, presenting those behind him. Those rejected by society. Those in need. Those with nothing. Those whom the prefect would not notice if he were alone in a room with them.
“These” said Lawrence, “these are the treasures of the Church. And the Church is truly rich, far richer than your Emperor.”

Those were the fights of Lawrence’s day. We talk of an existential fight over the soul of the church. We talk of Schism. We talk as if our very earthly existence is at stake, and yet, none of us face the executioner for our beliefs. Lawrence, as he was being roasted alive on a gridiron for his faith turned to his executioners, and said, “Turn me over and have a bite. This side’s done!” earning him a spot as the patron saint of comedians, no less. Lawrence found joy in his sacrifice. Our calender is full of martyrs and confessors. Full of leaders and idealists. We venerate these people. We hold them up as paragons of decency. We aim to join their communion. Why do we seem so loath to do more than say so?

If Lawrence could find humor even in his martyrdom, surely we can soften our tempers with a joke. If Lawrence had the courage to show the prefect what was truly valuable, surely we can take a look at those who would be affected by legislation and hear their story. If Lawrence can exemplify the sacrifices that our faith can require, surely we can sacrifice a tiny fraction of that to ensure the poor are properly cared for. If Lawrence could make a sacrifice of his life to protect the Church, surely we can sacrifice our obstinacy to hear and tolerate the views of others, accepting that though we are not always of one mind, we are of one body. As John Says in the reading for St. Lawrence’s Feast,

“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life (John 5.39:40).”

In another reading for the day Paul tells us that those who rely on The Law are cursed, for no one can follow them perfectly. It is through our faith in Jesus, that we are saved. It is his example that we should follow, knowing that we will fall short, and knowing that it is only through him we are yanked from the grips of fear, anger, selfishness and death.

We should follow the example set for us by St. Lawrence and aim to serve each other, as we are all spiritually poor having fallen short of the law, rather than seeking enforce the law on others. “Use every man after his desert, and who shall 'scape whipping?” wrote Shakespeare. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” writes Paul. It is both a religious and secular truth.

In spite of this, we continue to put ourselves on a pedestal. Though there is no crime in trying to better the world, advance your belief or push an agenda, we must also remind ourselves of the cost of pride. We are prone to accept that as our beliefs are right, and our opponent’s are wrong, and beyond that that we are right and they, as people, are of less value due to their differing beliefs. It is at times like these, when we reach the fever pitch of debate, as the pot begins to boil over, as the match hovers over the fuse, that we must remember what and who really matter. Winning a debate may be satisfying, but that is not a service. The discussions we are having regarding sexuality and the Church, and regarding the nations health insurance system are important, consequential things. They should be treated with the appropriate amount of seriousness. What we should remember as we start in on a rant, or try to tear down an opponent, especially one who is attempting to tear down us is this.

When given the opportunity to buy his life with the wealth of the church, Lawrence did not. He instead followed the example set for him. He gave everything to the weak and then declared that it was not the vestments, not the jewels, not the silver or gold and not the land that was important, but the least among us who are the treasures of the church. It would seem in this day and age, that we could all use a reminder of this, and try to follow his example.

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