For my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water — Jeremiah 2:13
Last semester, as part of my internship with The Marin Foundation, I read Friendship at the Margins by Christopher Heuertz and Christine D. Pohl, a book about doing ministry with those who exist on the outskirts of society, on the margins. Today, I finished Where the Edge Gathers by Yvette Flunder, a book written with similar intent. Finally, I read The Broken-Open Heart: Living with Faith and Hope in the Tragic Gap, a piece by Parker Palmer, a man who I admire and whose words have had a profound impact on how I view myself and my call to ministry. While I'm informed by the former, my focus here will be on the latter two pieces.
As a queer, African-American female clergy person, professor, and author, Yvette Flunder's passion for marginalized persons is clear in her work, both in the first half of Where the Edge Gathers where she speaks of creating, sustaining, celebrating, and preaching to community and in the second half of the book where she offers several of her sermons. As a white man, I've learned over time to more strongly value and appreciate the words and wisdom of the women of color in my life, often because their experiences are both different from and similar to some of my own. Although she writes a good amount about theological oppression against persons of color, the amount of time she focuses on same-gender loving, transgendered, and HIV+ persons is significantly more. Even as a gay man, the focus on how the church needs to be radically inclusive towards LGBTQ persons was almost overwhelming. That being said, I sincerely appreciated her section on inclusion of persons living with HIV/AIDS.
Because my sexual orientation places me in a minority while my race, gender, and class afford me a certain level of power and privilege, I often find myself teetering between the world of the powerful and the world of the marginalized. That being said, I strongly agree with much of what Flunder has to say. "I preach faith-based sermons to build self-worth and self-value in the lives of people who have often been stripped of all that is right and good. I strive to see peace and a sense of security present in the lives of those I paster, preach to, and serve... This is a peace born from the assurance that God will come through for us; God is on our side. This is what I believe; this is what I preach" (p.46).
In her sermon, Broken Cisterns, Flunder speaks of what I interpret to be the difference between stale, stagnant, and potentially harmful theology/ministry (the broken cistern) and abundant, inclusive, life-giving theology/ministry (the fountain of living water). It is here where Flunder catches my attention most. In order for us to effectively minister to those at the margins, we cannot be relying upon old, dusty, stale ways of ministering and theologizing. We have to go back to the source of living water. Sometimes this means letting the systems of which we are a part disintegrate and die off, a process that can feel painful and vulnerable, but one necessary for engaging those who need the life-giving good news of the Gospel. We need to stop drawing water that's been tainted and poisoned by oppression, abuse of power, various isms, and the need to maintain the status quo.
Parker Palmer says, "There is no way to be human without having one's heart broken" (p.6). Personally, I would agree. He continues by saying that either the heart can break into a thousand shards, emotional shrapnel buried deep within us, or it can be broken open in order to make room for compassion, grace, pain, and joy. The broken-open heart, Palmer says, is at the core of Christian tradition, rooted in the image of the cross. Christ allowed himself to be broken bodily as well as broken open for the sake of the love to which all his followers are called to embrace and live into.
Palmer goes on to speak about the "tragic gap," the gap "between what is and what should be, the gap between the reality of a given situation and the alternative reality we know to be possible because we have experienced it" (p.8). As a dreamer and an idealist, I know this gap all too well. There is a dream world I long for, a world without isms, oppression, and brokenness, and there is the real world where these things seem to flourish in abundance. Palmer speaks about how corrosive cynicism and irrelevant idealism push us to the same place: away from the gap, away from where we need to be, away from responsibility and action. The reality of this world is a painful one, but if we are to live into what it means to be a follower of Christ, if we are to truly and wholly for the transformation of this world, we cannot run from reality. We must stand fast. We must have courage. We must risk being broken open so this world can be closer to what it should be than what it is.
Palmer says that in order for the church and the world to be transformed, we must also be transformed as individuals. We do so by recognizing and naming our suffering honestly and openly, by moving directly into the heart of it, allowing ourselves to feel the pain of it, and by giving ourselves space and quiet in which the pain can settle and the hurt can heal. At each of these three stages, we are to act in opposition to what culture says is right and good. Instead of hiding our pain, we name it. Rather than running, we stay. And instead of cluttering up our lives to hide the pain, we give ourselves space to feel and mend it.
Flunder and Palmer seem to share Henri Nouwen's perspective that part of the Christian life is to embrace our own brokenness and to risk more of it for the purpose of vulnerability, for the sake of changing the world. Each in their own unique way and unique voice speaks of the necessity of being broken for the sake of the other just as Christ allowed himself to be broken for us. The world in which we live is in fact a broken one, and its inhabitants have most certainly experienced their fair share of brokenness. But as Palmer says, there is a difference between broken and broken open, and for the world to change and be transformed, we must do the latter, not into cisterns that carry either no water or worse, water that is tainted, dirty, and harmful, but into wells nourished by the fountain of living water offered to us by the Creator.