Adulting in America

Carla J. Bailey July 2, 2017

Scripture Ephesians 4:1–7, 11–16

My birthday is the Fourth of July, so you can imagine why, for many of my childhood years, I believed unequivocally that the fireworks mysteriously displayed wherever our family happened to be on that holiday were for me. It’s appropriate for children to believe that they are the center of the universe, at least their parents’ and grandparents’ universe, but probably not the entire United States, and so it was, with considerable disillusionment and dismay, I grew up to understand that adults sometimes lie. It was my first step into adulthood. My adult children described their transition into adulthood as “adulting,” as in “I emptied the dishwasher without being told—I’m totally adulting today,” or “I opened an IRA at work—I’m really getting good at this whole adulting thing!” I’d like President Trump to try it—as in “I’ve given up tweeting insults—am I adulting or what?”

Actually, adulting is a little more complicated than that, whether one is trying to be an adult American or an adult Christian. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

There is a legend told about Karl Barth, one of the most significant theologians of the 20th century. He wrote, preached and lectured brilliantly about what it means to be Christian, most powerfully when his Christian convictions conflicted with the Nazi regime under which he was living. Barth rejected the predominant liberal theology typical of 19th-century European Protestantism, but he also rejected more conservative forms of Christianity. Instead he constructed something of a new theological construct initially called “dialectical theology.” This newer theological perspective stressed paradox—how two seemingly opposite faith claims could both be true at the same time. For example, God embodies both grace and judgment at one and the same time. Barth became a leader in the Confessing Church movement against Adolf Hitler. In 1934, he was largely responsible for writing the Barmen Declaration, which rejected the influence of the Nazi Party over German Christianity by arguing that the Church’s loyalty to the God of Jesus Christ must prevent it from appropriating any Nazi principles, sympathies or symbols. For that perspective, he lived under the threat of death.

Barth survived WWII, and the legend about him is that late in life, during one of his last visits to the United States in the mid-1960s, an American religion reporter interviewed him. “Herr Barth, you have been a prolific writer. You have said many profound things about the Church, about Jesus Christ, about Christian opposition to nationalism, to the tyranny of racial absolutism. What now would you say is the most important thing you have learned? What is the essence of the Gospel?” Barth thought for just a moment, and then came forth with “Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong. They are weak but he is strong. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.”

Whether that happened or not, it’s a good story. How is it that such a simple children’s Bible school song from such a brilliant mind is the perfect example of adulting?

We are not yet to the point in our nation’s story where protesting the direction of our public life and honoring the state’s prohibition against interference in the Church puts us in the literal crosshairs of our elected representatives. We do still live beneath the freedoms of thought and expression that so shape our American story, however threatened those freedoms may be. But I am of the opinion that we are not yet an adult nation. We are not mature. I think of the United States as somewhere around 19 or 20 years old—maybe a couple of years of community college or liberal arts education under our belts, just awakening to the complexities of our parents’ choices and their parents’ and theirs. Our national behaviors are as often self-destructive as they are smart. We go on benders from time to time. Lest I go too far with this analogy, let me offer some examples:

This past Thanksgiving Day, Plymouth hosted the downtown congregations’ interfaith service of worship. Tim Hart-Andersen, Senior Minister at Westminster Presbyterian Church, shared the preaching duties with Jim Bear Jacobs, minister of the Church of All Nations and a member of the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican Nation, an American Indian tribe located in central Wisconsin. It wasn’t lost on Jim Bear the irony of standing in the pulpit of a church named Plymouth on Thanksgiving Day preaching to a largely non-native congregation. His very presence was a physical reminder that our ancestors, mine anyway, seized the land previously occupied by his ancestors and claimed it according to the Doctrine of Discovery, as a new land, free for the taking with no prior claim or pre-existing civilization. That is adolescent logic, maybe more like toddler logic: I see it, I want it, it’s mine. How far have we moved as a nation from that perspective, developmentally speaking?

And how are we ever going to heal from the original sin of slavery, the legacy of which continues to contaminate our national soul? Of the kidnap of millions of human beings, using their bodies, those bodies that survived the Middle Passage, as economic pawns, laboring machines with no regard for cultural heritage or human dignity or personal autonomy? How will we heal the scourge of racism when we still, so many of us, unconsciously equate light skin with intelligence and dark skin with savagery?

President Trump’s tweets, as embarrassing and undignified as they are, do not hold a candle to the national disgrace that people in this nation of wealth and scientific achievement will die, unnecessarily, because they can’t afford the health care that is readily available to them, or because they live in proximity to toxic waste or in homes vulnerable to the ravages of climate change.

And how many guns do we need, for heaven’s sake, to maintain a “well regulated Militia”?

And is a woman’s body not her own? And do we have to denigrate other religions because we love ours? And, and, and . . .

We’ve had something of a bad habit in this country of equating this American democratic experiment to the unhelpful conquering images of Christian triumphalism. Too many of us think of ourselves as the new Jerusalem, the city on the hill—exceptional and entitled to what we believe are God-given privileges and rewards. Our unexamined civil religion replaces the disciplines and sacrifices of genuine religious and spiritual practice. I thought I was being religious when I learned the words to the Pledge of Allegiance as a child.

My friend Ben Guess, a UCC minister whose work for justice through these past nearly 20 years has put him on the front lines of every serious justice issue our nation faces, has just recently left his position working for the church. Some of you may remember Ben. He preached here at Plymouth when I was installed as your senior minister in 2015. Ben has just been named the Executive Director of the ACLU of Ohio. It’s where his deep commitment as a Christian has led him. Ben is, in every way I can identify, an adult Christian.

So, what constitutes spiritual, emotional, religious adulthood? Is it an ability to grasp seemingly contrasting truths and holding them both as valid, as Karl Barth wrote? Is it an ability to see context as significant as results? Is it to have pared down one’s needs, so as to finally understand that wants are not the same as needs? Is it to be selfless in one’s generosity? Is it relinquishment of stridency? Is it the willingness to confess? Is it such a total commitment to the well-being of another so as to lose one’s fear of death? Is it to understand that I, as an individual, am never as important as we, a community?

We know that really smart people are not necessarily mature people. We know that moral maturity is not the same as intellectual sophistication. We know that the more mature an individual, the more relative are the truths she once held. We know maturity is not measured by anything visible—perhaps it cannot be measured at all, except by selflessness.

This passage from Ephesians describes, in many ways, the basic tenets of Christian adulting. It is a kind of back-to-basics primer, a passage that reminds us of the essential expectations of the Christian faith. Though it was probably not written by Paul, it contains and expands some of his strongest and most vibrant desires for Christian discipleship along with his description of Christian community—the Body of Christ. And it simply states the hopes of the writer that those who assume the life of Christian discipleship will live in a way worthy of that calling.

Believe me, I know how easy it is to over-complicate what it means to be a Christian. Moreover, I am certain that over-complicating what Christian discipleship demands of its adherents makes many of us run away from the work of study and prayer. Ironically, over-simplifying Christian discipleship also makes people turn away, me included, since over-simplification suggests that life is uncomplicated, that challenging, ethical dilemmas can be quickly resolved with just the application of a few poetic little Christian slogans. I find that approach frustrating because it seems so often to be applied by persons who haven’t done the heavy lifting first. It’s one thing for Karl Barth to distill Christian thought into a simple song or prayer, isn’t it? It’s quite another for some of our public figures to do it.

Suppose we who are American Christians were to act on any given day in the following way: First, we think carefully about who Jesus was. Using all the gifts of the mind God has given us, we imagine an actual encounter between Jesus and someone we’ve read about in the gospels—actually picture it behind our closed eyes—Jesus and the rich young ruler, Jesus and the poor widow, Jesus and the priests, Jesus and the bleeding woman, Jesus and the demoniac, Jesus and the ten lepers, Jesus and Pilate, Jesus and Zacchaeus, Jesus and Mary Magdalene, Jesus and Judas, Jesus and Peter . . . . Then, having fully imagined that encounter, having listened carefully to the words and voices, having imagined the heat and smell, and pictured the dusty road, the clothes, the faces, the eyes—then choose to act in a way Jesus would find acceptable. That same Jesus we just imagined: Might he not lead us to an action we couldn’t have imagined doing before bringing him to mind? Might we not choose our words more carefully? Might we not be gentler when we should and more courageous when we can? Slow to anger? Quick to forgive? Might we not protest injustice vigorously? Defend the rights of the immigrant? Protect the impoverished? Demand accountability? I believe we would. I believe we would.

“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” Paul wrote these words to the church in Corinth. Perhaps we might try to hear them as if they were written to the Church in America. Amen.