Selfishness and a Fire Truck

I walked over to the neighborhood drugstore just now to get a couple of necessities like Coke and peanuts. When I came back out, I heard, then saw, a fire engine about a block away on Peachtree Street. Before it got to me, it turned east onto 5th Street, toward where I live. “Oh no,” I thought. “As long as it’s not my place.”

Upon which I immediately asked myself if I was really wishing a house fire on someone else. I still remember, 38 years later, that sinking, sickening feeling I had when my own house burned down. How could I wish that feeling on someone else?

Well, I thought, at least I hope the fire isn’t hitting anyone even less fortunate than me.

What!? Am I playing the poor card, and wishing disaster on “those rich folks”? Because, what?, they can afford it more easily? Really, they have so much more to lose than I would. Someone “more fortunate than me” could be, for example, just a working class family with a couple of kids. No, even if they have insurance, that would too horrible for them, especially for the kids — the fear, the grief.

It’s not the amount of loss, I realized. Someone scraping by, someone with almost nothing, might have less to lose, but would probably be impacted by a fire far harder than I would.

Exasperated, I asked myself if I was being selfish. If I’m saying it’s bad to hope a richer person’s house is on fire, and bad to hope it’s a poorer person’s, does that mean the right thing to do is wish that the fire truck really was headed for my apartment after all? No, I decided, that’s ridiculous. There’s no reasonable morality or ethical system that would require that.

This might have been a good time to stop having this conversation with myself, but I always have trouble telling my brain to shut up once it gets going.

By now I’d walked far enough to see down the next block, and there was the fire truck, with a police car, parked next to what appeared to be a relatively minor traffic accident. Well, good, I thought, that’s a much better outcome than any of the hypothetical scenarios that my over-active imagination had been fretting about.

Back in my apartment, as I settled in to nibble on my peanuts and sip my Coke, I tried to figure out where that whole thought process had gone off the rails. Somehow I’d reached the conclusion that none of my feelings was morally acceptable, and being let off the hook by the discovery that there was no disaster to contemplate after all wasn’t a satisfactory resolution either.

So here’s what I came to. Maybe it’s trivial and obvious, but it felt like insight to me, which is why I’m going on and on about this incident.

The error that I made was in trying to wish away something painful that was already happening. The reality of the fire truck meant that I couldn’t wish it away completely, so the impulse was channeled into wishing it in one direction or another. Children might wish for bad things to happen to anyone but them, but part of growing up is leaving that behind. We learn that when the bad things don’t happen to us, it doesn’t mean they don’t happen at all; it means they happen to some other real, live person. Once we know that, we can never go back and un-know it.

The next time I see a fire truck, I’ll stick to reality. Somewhere, some people are hurting, or scared, or grieving over something that’s been lost. Even a minor traffic accident can scare the bejeebus out of you. If I’m close enough, and I’m able, of course the right response is to try to help. But if I’m not, I’ll think of those people, and pray that they find some kind of comfort, whether from one another, or from God, or from the kindness of strangers who happen to be there with them — which is really just God by another name.

What’s Theology Got To Do With It?

I first wrote this as a comment for a discussion thread in a group I belong to (the group is the ordained and in-process clergy of the Progressive Christian Alliance). The discussion was about how important theological conversations are as part of our Christian community. Some high-powered Ph.D.-type folks will submit posts that send me scurrying to Wikipedia for an hour. Others, often working ministers, will suggest that – at least among us clergy and maybe-someday-clergy – theological discussions are fun, and have their place, but what we really need to be talking about among ourselves is the practical stuff: how to plant a church, how to feed the hungry, how to fight on behalf of oppressed people, and so forth.

I have my own thoughts on the topic, and as most people reading this know, I’m not shy about expressing my thoughts. On the other hand, I didn’t want to get all adversarial in the online group, sounding like, “I’m right, so Rev. XYZ is wrong because he disagrees with me, and Rev. ABC is partly right because she partly agrees with me.”

Ew. Ick.

So I tried to just say what I feel, and this is what I ended up posting:

I suppose this will sound like I’m agreeing with someone or disagreeing with someone, but that’s not my intention. Read that into it if you want, but really, this is just me, speaking from the heart.

My own call – or maybe it’s more of a dream than a call – is to reach out to people who feel rejected by the church, or by God, or by Jesus, and help them find a way to understand God that lets them believe, and to feel safe doing so. I guess the big churchy word for this is evangelism, although as one raised Unitarian and currently Presbyterian, I’ll admit that the word doesn’t roll – never has rolled – readily off my tongue.

I came to my own faith in mid-life, and it’s been a source of such joy and comfort and inspiration for me that I want to share that, because my hope is that maybe, just maybe, there will be less pain in the world if I do. I’m more empathetic than perhaps is good for me, so I feel the pain in so many others whose paths cross with mine. Part of that is spiritual pain, and I want to help alleviate that.

Of course I know that God calls us to physically help the hungry, the oppressed, the poor. And of course I know that having enough to eat, and being treated decently by others, and keeping warm in the winter go a long way toward relieving pain. To talk about helping people find a relationship, or a closer relationship, with God, is not to dismiss talking about boots-on-the-ground service work.

It’s just that I believe that spiritual healing is important, too. For me, that has meant finding a radically new way to understand faith, God, the Bible, and Christianity itself. I had to tear down almost everything I “knew” before I could start building – or maybe I should say before the Spirit could start building – a life-encompassing, life-changing faith.

But maybe I’ve got it wrong. My spiritual discipline this Lenten season has not been to give something up, but to re-examine this sense of call that has had a hold on me for the past five years — not necessarily to answer all my questions (it’s only 40 days!), but to at least discern a direction, to get un-stuck. I’m in the Presbyterian ordination process, but maybe I’m not called to be a Presbyterian pastor after all. I’ve had the application for ordination in the Progressive Christian Alliance for months, but maybe I’m not called to ordained ministry there either. Maybe I’m not called to ordained ministry at all. Maybe this whole idea of “evangelism” (I can hardly believe that it’s me using that word) is on the wrong track. Maybe what God really wants me to do is to simply work to support my daughter, worship with a congregation, and spend the rest of my time volunteering at the food bank or the homeless shelter.

My point is that I don’t know how to help people find God without theologizing. I don’t know how to bust people loose from the old, broken Christian theologies without knowing what I believe, and how to express it. But maybe theological thinking is the wrong tool for the job. Maybe I just need to be a shining example of Christianity in action, so that people can see that faith isn’t a bad thing, that it’s even a good thing, and in that way, draw them in.

Either way, I’m grateful to have safe places to hold theological discussions, or even discussions of whether theology is necessary. I hope I’ll continue to find those places.