By Bishop Paul V. Marshall
[This is Bishop Paul Marshall's September 2008 column for secular newspapers, papers throughout our 14 counties. It is published by The Morning Call, Allentown, on the first Saturday of every month. It usually appears also in ten additional papers. The combined circulation of papers that publish the column regularly is more than 400,000. More than 130 columns have been published over the past 12 years. If your paper does not publish the column and you would consider bringing it to the attention of the editor, please email Bill Lewellis.]
What I did this summer was attend a three-week international conference of bishops and then come home to sit with my father while he died.
Neither of these events is close to being sorted through in my mind. Each will reverberate for a long time. In setting and tone, the two events were quite different. What they had in common was my having to be patient with a process I could barely influence, let alone control.
All one could do in either case was be present and receive whatever graces were available.
During the conference in England, my counterpart in Sudan and I had to deal with a disagreement in a way that highlighted the kind of quiet receptivity I mention here.
“When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers,” say the Africans with a universal wisdom. My partner, the Bishop of Kajo Keji, and I came to a moment when strong positions taken by a leader of one of our national churches on a hot-button issue had the potential of polarizing our dioceses and our personal relationship.
What the “elephants” were struggling about is not trivial, but it is high up the pyramid of issues, not basic, as is our present work. We are helping to rebuild the infrastructure of Southern Sudan and strengthen church life there while energizing Americans in the areas of mission and evangelism, essential stuff.
The concerns and anxiety of others had put us in a position where an issue not relevant to our work together had the potential to divide us. So after some preliminary conversation one chilly evening as we watched the English sunset, we trusted each other enough to talk it all out.
What I was grateful for in that conversation was that neither of us tried to convert the other. Each of us has enough education and experience to think through positions, and we come from and serve cultures that have marked differences in what is discussable and how it is discussed.
We worked to find a container, so to speak, large enough to embrace and energize us for our work in the grass while the elephants continue their struggle.
We said the usual things about first things first and keeping the focus on the work, but they weren’t a sufficient container.
The container became for me a meditation on the New Testament story of the Good Samaritan, a story originally told to help people deal with the unattractiveness of a crucified savior. In that story, a man who has been robbed, beaten, and left for dead looks up to see aid coming from a Samaritan, of all people. That figure was a stranger, an outcast mongrel, a person whom he would not normally even acknowledge. In accepting help from a person with whom there was no community and little understanding, the man lying on the road was saved in every way that one can be saved.
For my partner bishop and me, this affirmation was paramount: the affection and support that passes between our dioceses is made more valuable by the fact that it flows from and is received by people who may not, truth be told, understand or approve of each other in every way.
I do not embroider here upon “beggars can’t be choosers.” There is no begging involved in our relationship; we work in a mutually beneficial partnership, each partner receiving very different gifts.
I do say that a basic spiritual experience found us to be like the man lying in the road: surprised and gladdened to be loved by someone we would not have chosen for the job.
Is this the week for you to ask who are the unsought sources of grace in your life?
[The Rt. Rev. Paul V. Marshall is bishop of the Diocese of Bethlehem, 14 counties of eastern and northeastern Pennsylvania. His recently published book, Messages in the Mall: Looking at Life in 600 Words or Less (Seabury), is a collection of ten years of his monthly columns for newspapers. Additional columns and sermons by Bishop Marshall are available at www.diobeth.org.]