There is a peculiar spiritual malaise that afflicts at various times. It is the sense of being “out of sync.” Pastors hear of it often. It’s the feeling grieving families have at the holidays. Holidays are supposed to be joyous, celebratory, festive. But a holiday is, for those grieving, a glaring reminder of loss. Christmas. Mother’s Day. On these days, many of us feel especially out of sync with our own faith communities.
It goes beyond holidays, though. Most of us, at some level or another, cultivate an avatar we put on as we gather with our faith communities. We take a shower, break out our Sunday finest, put on that happy smile. This is sustainable over the short term. It isn’t too much of a burden to “fake it” for a Sunday or two. If doubts, grief, tensions linger longer, the burden of living out of sync becomes more dramatic. Those living with long-term illness, caring for life partners, struggling with faith, find the perdurance of out-of-syncness almost unbearable.
It is, in my experience, one of the most frequent reasons individuals or families disaffiliate from religious community. It’s not that they stop believing. It’s just that they can’t sustain an avatar, a face, that allows them to function in socially acceptable ways among those with whom they feel out of sync. As difficult as it is, if faith communities wish to embrace those who are out-of-sync, to create safe space for them, they probably will have to work on not subliminally communicating expectations that make those struggling feel unwelcome. If you are going to say Come as you are! you need to work on meaning it. It likely starts by simply saying, clearly, “If you feel out of sync, that’s okay. It might even be a very normal feeling to have."
Here we are now, just a week after some of the most momentous historical events of our decade. Many of them have helped me feel more in sync in my own country than ever before. As a pastor, I’m thrilled more and more people will have guaranteed health coverage. I rejoice with my LGBTQ friends who now have the same guarantees to marry as I do. Pope Francis raised our collective awareness of how our care of the earth is a form of neighbor love. And we are now engaging in perhaps the most serious and potentially productive conversation about racism we have had in our nation since the civil rights era.
This does, however, mean I feel out of sync, and to an increased degree, with those who differ from me in their views on these matters. Christians who do not support same-gender marriage feel particularly out of sync with a pastor who does.
Those of us unaware of, or unwilling to admit, our own racial bias, unable to even comprehend the difference between overt racism, and systemic racism, struggle to be in sync with our brothers and sisters in minority communities who have lived under the fire of racist micro-agressions their whole lives.
First attempts at listening to one another often only exacerbate rather than ameliorate the sense of being out of sync. When we first start to listen to one another, if we are out of sync, the out-of-syncness feels even more dramatic, because we have for the first time begun to chart the cartography of our difference, the space between us.
I think this is why we avoid listening to each other. We’d rather not know how out of sync we actually are.
However, if we keep listening, keep talking, especially if we tell others that, although it is not their responsibility to teach us, that if they make us uncomfortable, we value it, because it helps us learn from them, we can begin to be more in sync than heretofore. I need to hear from my African-American brothers and sisters, and be open to their challenge, if we are ever going to get to a place where white Christians and African-American Christians can share common experience, beloved community, in our nation.
I do worry. I worry that our recent discourse reifies polarities rather than contributes to communicative rationality. Taking down or raising flags communicates something, but does it really open space for conversation. Are we engaging in discourse in the public sphere, are we creating communities, that will do more than pay lip service? Can we actually change hearts and minds?
I’ve been loving that great line of Abraham Lincoln’s, a sentence we could keep at the forefront of our discourse in these out of sync times: "With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds.” Increased charity and tempering of malice, all while continuing our firmness in the right, these could go as far as anything to assist us in being more spiritually in sync, one with another.