Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #143. First published in the St. Cloud Times online May 31, 2019; in print June 2

In the middle of May I glimpsed the future. The vision wasn’t as graphic and monumental as what John of Patmos, author of the biblical book of Revelation, saw, but it was plenty colorful – and more hopeful.

First, though, some background.

I’ve had experiences, and have heard from others about theirs, that have taught me to be skeptical of my certainties, especially when those certainties exclude people unlike me.

The most vivid of my comeuppances happened in 1976.

Old Testament scholar Phyllis Trible and I are leading a convocation at Maryville College in Tennessee. The subject we were given: “Who Speaks for Man?”

“I hope everyone will understand,” I declare, “that when I say ‘man’ I mean both genders.” And so I plow ahead for the whole three days – “man,” “mankind,” “he,” “him,” “his.”

On the final day Trible jolts me. “Patrick, why do you keep using language that hurts millions of us, all the while insisting that you aren’t?”

She convicts me of sin.

What matters is not my “good intentions,” but the impassioned voices of millions of women who are saying that the common terminology is an insult, a put-down. My meaning no harm is no excuse for my not listening to those who tell me they are harmed by my use of those terms.

Even today, when I read things I wrote before 1976 I’m chagrined to realize that for so long I didn’t “get it,” that it was only when I was 37 that I saw the future.

“What about last month, though?” you wonder. We’ll get to that. Bear with me.

When he was a boy growing up in Litchfield, my friend Herbert Chilstrom did as Lutherans did in those days – crossed to the opposite sidewalk when he saw a nun or priest coming his way. In 1995, when Chilstrom retired as the first presiding bishop of the newly formed Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Archbishop John Roach of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis was an honored guest at the party.

Both Chilstrom and Roach had learned to be skeptical of the “certainties” that Catholics and Lutherans used to hold about each other.

It was on May 15 that I attended “Paisley Pride” at the Paramount Center for the Arts, this year’s Youth Arts Initiative Spring Showcase of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Minnesota. It was there that I saw the future.

What happened in the Paramount's theater and halls and studios reminded me of the vision in Isaiah 11:6, where wolves and lambs and leopards and calves and lions all live together peacefully – “and a little child shall lead them.”

News reports from our area too often sound like wolves and lambs, leopards and calves going at each other. It’s not the whole story, of course, not even the main part, but that it’s any part at all is a blight.

The Spring Showcase makes clear that in the Boys & Girls Clubs (disclosure: my wife is a board member) a future is being written – a future of inclusiveness, of appreciation for difference (not fear of it), of friendship across racial, ethnic, religious lines.

Children singing together, dancing together, tumbling together, painting together, laughing together, are learning a lesson – far sooner than I did about language or Herb Chilstrom did about meeting “the other” on the sidewalk.

“The things that make us different are the things that make us beautiful,” as the artwork on the Paisley Pride program cover states so eloquently.

This insight is subtly but powerfully different from the more common “what unites us is stronger than what divides us.”

I certainly believe the common expression, but it draws too sharp a distinction between “uniting” and “dividing.” The young people at the Boys & Girls Clubs recognize that the differences, which too often morph into divisions, are themselves integral to the unitings.

I suspect that these young people, when they are adults, will not forget what was so impressively displayed at the Paramount. When someone suggests to them that they should be wary of people who don’t look like them, don’t pray like them, don’t dress like them, who speak with a different accent, they will respond, “That doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Yes, children will themselves become the future. But why not let them lead us into that future right now? We don’t have to wait until they’re adults for the vision to be made real. They can teach us who are adults already: "The things that make us different are the things that make us beautiful” – indeed, to be skeptical of our certainties when those certainties exclude people unlike us.