Rather Be Right?

Amoeba. (clearly, a psuedopod).

Beatitude Series - Part 3

"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled."

I still remember the bet I won against Jon Hanson. This was thirty some odd – mostly odd – years ago. I was sixteen. We were on a camping trip – some kids from the neighborhood, I don’t even remember exactly who all was there. I don’t remember many other details about the trip either, except that Jon Hanson and I got in to an argument about whether amoebas were pseudopods. I could take the time to explain what this means; but the specifics here aren’t relevant. The only important piece of the story that you need to retain here is that I was right. If you do want to know more about what it means that amoebas are pseudopods you could ask me at coffee hour, for I shall surely tell you, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend asking.

Whether or not amoebas are pseudopods is a matter of fact. But this argument, oh my children, took place before the time when there were smart phones, or cell phones of any sort. It was before cell phones, and before Wikipedia and Google, those tools that have revolutionized bar bets everywhere.
I have absolutely no idea how it was that we came to our disagreement about amoebas. It’s not a topic that comes up often in every day conversation. I’m sure I have never had a discussion about it with anyone since. But somehow we did come to disagree about amoebas, and it seems to me that it must have been early in the camping trip, because, as I remember it now, neither one of us, or rather, let’s say I, didn’t have the decency or good sense to drop it, or at least let it go until we got back to civilization. It wasn’t like we were arguing about an opinion, or a principle, something that might benefit from a little back and forth, the art of persuasion and all that. No, instead, for what seems now like the entire weekend, I maintained strenuously that amoebas were pseudopods and Jon Hanson was adamant that they were not. Basically, I spent the weekend saying “yes they are,” and he, “No they’re not.”

Now, this was also the time, oh children, when we looked up information in books! Home from the camping trip, I went straight to the braille edition of my biology textbook, found the paragraph that listed amoebas as pseudopods, got the print edition of the textbook, found someone to help me find the right page number, -- I was committed -- and walked up the street to the Hanson house with the textbook open to the page on amoebas. I still remember the moment. I hadn’t even gotten inside. I was standing on the Hanson’s doorstep, Jon stood just inside the open door, the book between us. What he said was something like, “Oh my God.”

Now, if I was a. a better preacher, b. a better person, or c. a better Christian, I would have begun by telling you a story in which I was wrong. There are certainly a lot of them. For the purposes of our discussion I would even be willing to stipulate that I’ve been wrong as often as I’ve been right, maybe the balance is even a little bit over on the wrong side. I am now fifty, and it is true that my on board memory and its retrieval system more and more return bad data. There are more and more stories in which I am the one who miss-remembers or has the facts wrong. What’s more, I have been on the wrong side in matters far more consequential than the classification of amoebas. I could have told any of those stories. But, and again, I know this is perhaps revealing a bit too much about my character, when I sat down to write these reflections, I couldn’t come up with a compelling example. I don’t remember any stories of being wrong with anything near the clarity with which I remember being right when I was sixteen.

And I know perfectly well that it could have gone the other way. I could have been the one to miss-remember what I’d studied or not about amoebas. I could have been the one to miss-remember so completely that I was willing to bet on it. The point is, as I’d like you to recall, is that I was right.
“Why is it so fun to be right,” Kathryn Schulz asks in her book called “Being Wrong,”  “As pleasures go,” she continues, “it is, after all, a second-order one at best. Unlike many of life's other delights--chocolate, surfing, kissing--it does not enjoy any mainline access to our biochemistry: to our appetites, our adrenal glands, our limbic systems, and our swoony hearts. And yet, the thrill of being right is undeniable, universal, and (perhaps most oddly) almost entirely undiscriminating. 
We can't enjoy kissing just anyone, but we can relish being right about almost anything. The stakes don't seem to matter much; it's more important to bet on the right foreign policy than the right racehorse, but we are perfectly capable of gloating over either one. Nor does subject matter; we can be equally pleased about correctly identifying an orange-crowned warbler or the sexual orientation of our coworker. Stranger still, we can enjoy being right even about disagreeable things: the downturn in the stock market, say, or the demise of a friend's relationship, or the fact that, at our spouse's insistence, we just spent fifteen minutes schlepping our suitcase in exactly the opposite direction from our hotel.”

Back when I was working with That All May Freely Serve, advocating for the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons, I attended a church service one Sunday in New Haven Connecticut at which the pastor had used for the title of her sermon the title of a bluegrass song called “You’d Rather be Right than be in Love.” I don’t remember the Scriptural text nor the point or points of the sermon, but the title stuck. There were plenty of instances from my own life when I chose perversely for my own delusional infallibility. It also seemed to me to be an apt diagnosis for what was ailing the church. As the fight over ordination of LGBT folks wound its way through the church, at any of its meetings or debates or assemblies at which the question was argued, you could find a vast multitude of sincere Christians of all political and theological opinions who exercised a strong preference for being right. Surely there were many, of many a theological stripe who preferred the way of love and mercy and grace, but their voices tended to get drowned out.

The payoff of being right is that delicious feeling of being superior, which we know we ought not admit to caring about, but which is altogether satisfying nonetheless. Being right also helps us feel secure, and that is a feeling we’ll go to just about any length to find. Being right is beautiful in its simplicity. Choose being in love over being right and you’ve just opened the door to a world of complications. These complications are too numerous to list, but chief among them are the complications of heartbreak and vulnerability. As Kara would say, it’s messy!

It’s a short hop from being right to being righteous. Stir in some morality and a few letters and your there. We all crave that kind of security – not just that we have the facts right about amoebas, but that we’ve made the right choices, acted in accordance with the highest principles. There is that part in all of us – or, at least I know there is a part in me – that turns to religion to satisfy our need to feel more secure. It is hard and humbling to realize that faith leads us not to security but vulnerability –that faith calls us to choose being in love over being right.

In his ministry and his teachings Jesus endeavored to put a little daylight between us and our righteousness. In Matthew’s gospel he starts out in a spectacular way – reversing all of those assumptions about which we are so certain that we need not even name them. We would not choose to be the poor in spirit, to be those who mourn, to be the meek, or those who are perpetually hungry in spirit. But, when Jesus begins his Sermon on the Mount it is suddenly opposite day.
Sometimes gently, sometimes fiercely Jesus sets before us the truth both terrible and liberating that we are creatures who are wholly dependent on grace, and wholly interdependent with one another. Jesus holds out to us the salve of humility, which is the balm for all of our striving and all of our obsessive hankering after security. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

When I lived in San Francisco, I was a member of a tiny little Presbyterian Church. There was never quite enough money, and, what was more difficult, there was never quite enough people to do all the things that needed doing. As I was getting ready to move back here, that congregation was in the middle of an ridiculously ambitious capital campaign. Our beautiful Victorian 110 year old building had been damaged in the 1906 earthquake. We were the congregation of deferred maintenance. But finally, we got to the point where we had to remodel or close.
We considered closing. Then we voted to continue. The rebuilding would cost $5 million. If each of the 62 members wrote out a check for $80,645.16 we would be done. But, most of us didn’t have a spare $80,000.

So, our already over-burdened membership set out to raise a lot of money. What’s more, in order to complete the renovations, we had to move out of our church. We decamped to the chapel at a nearby hospital. People hadn’t exactly been beating down our doors when we worshipped in the beautiful Victorian church, but now, at the chapel, it was almost impossible for those much coveted new visitors to find us. You could call our decision to continue courageous, or you could call it absurd.

When I decided to move back here, I wanted nothing more than to find a church that would not be linked to the adjective “struggling.” I wanted to find a church where you could slip in on Sunday morning, shake hands with a few people, and leave again, with your anonymity mostly intact.
Yet, as if I needed more evidence that God has a vast appreciation for irony, the warmth and hospitality of this little struggling church got to me before I had even had time to experience the fun and freedom of being a church shopper.

I don’t mean to suggest that there is any inherent virtue in struggling – of having always to figure out how we will pay the bills, or who will serve on the Deacons, or bring treats for fellowship time. I’m only suggesting that we are, because of these things, relieved of the allusion of thinking that we are sufficient unto ourselves. We have the blessing of being reminded in real and substantial ways that we are dependent on God and on each other.

To be those who hunger and thirst for righteousness is to know that there is a way beyond our way. To hunger and thirst for righteousness is to finally come to know that to feed on our own righteousness is to fill up on empty calories.
To be meek then is not to be ashamed or small or groveling. It is only to be at peace with our place in the universe, not to be secure, but to be at home.

Let us be the church that would rather be in love.
Let us be the people who know the blessing of being at home in God’s grace.

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