two antique keys

The fitting response.

by Kelly Kahlstrom

2006 was a year I’ll never forget.

My mammogram came back abnormal. I needed a biopsy. I was a single mother raising a teenager. I didn’t know what to think. I didn’t know how much to say. Or to whom. I eventually shared this news with a friend who responded “Ah don’t worry about it. That happened to me and it was nothing…statistics are on your side.” Somehow, I was not reassured nor was I comforted. Another friend held me, let me cry, and give voice to the terror of facing cancer. No reassurances. No statistics. Just the validation that they had heard my pain. I have never forgotten that life giving moment; it was a fitting response.

2006 was also the year that my daughter got married. In the certainty of her newly found religion and in the certainty of her youth, it was decided that her family of origin would be excluded from most of the wedding plans and certainly the ceremony itself. No bridal shower. No shopping for a wedding dress. No negotiating. We were however requested to wait outside the Mormon Temple in Mesa to greet the happy couple (and the groom’s parents) as they emerged from the ceremony. The pain of these decisions was unbearable at the time, both personally and theologically. Feeling justifiably hurt and angry, my initial reaction was to boycott the event.

Grace, however, comes in surprising packages.  Shortly after the wedding announcement but before the ceremony I attend a Walter Brueggemann lecture. Embedded in the countercultural read of the Exodus story and Yahweh’s response to the voiced pain of the Hebrew slaves, I found my fitting response. “Hospitality,” Bruegemann said, “will always trump vengeance.” As unhappy as I was with the circumstances, a relationship with my daughter was still more important to me than my certainty in the theological position of inclusiveness and while the day of the wedding was difficult, I have never regretted the decision to show up and greet my daughter after the ceremony. “Hospitality will always trump vengeance.” A pearl of wisdom that is just what is needed in the moment; again a fitting response.

But what exactly is a fitting response? Calvin Schrag suggests that it is an ethical analysis of the questions “What is going on?” and “How should we respond?” It is an openness to create what is needed at the moment to affirm life. It cannot be scripted in advance for as moments and experiences change, so will the fitting response. And, it is not to be undertaken lightly. A fitting response requires three things from us:

  1. A willingness to listen to someone’s voiced pain, analyze what is needed to affirm life, and to take action.
  2. A willingness to be changed by the experience – an agreement to enter into the mutuality of a relationship.
  3. A realization that it is not a one-time deal; there is a constant call to respond with openness and awareness while we negotiate and renegotiate our being together.

Similarly, Martin Copenhaver, in exploring an alternative narrative for the decline in the life of the church and of theological education writes, “To tell the story of our time as one of decline is to walk away from our inheritance as Easter people. God is not dead and neither are God’s promises.” Copenhaver’s questions are “What is God up to in our time?” and “What are we to do in response?” Both speak to the work of “breathing life into dead spaces” and highlight the need to formulate a fitting response to the pain we are privileged to see and hear.

Fast forward to 2016…I have found being on the board of Rebel & Divine challenging as well as exhausting as we arrange and rearrange the structure of the organization in the hopes of soon becoming a covenant church in the Southwest Conference. Longing for order in the midst of chaos, and knowing that reacting usually falls short of the desired result, I set out to look for guidance in how to best respond.  I spent the better part of Easter weekend looking for the UCC version of the Presbyterian Book of Order only to find that it doesn’t exist [smile].  As one who engages the world first through my head I seem to forget (fairly often sadly) that I cannot think my way out of all of life’s challenges especially challenges that present in the vertical dimension.

And so it seems that the United Church of Christ is asking me to take the fitting response seriously. It is far harder than just thinking, or remembering the order of Robert’s Rules. It is to recognize and respond to the beckoning of creation; an invitation to create a place from which listening with a new ear or a different way of seeing can bubble up from the depths of my being and make its way through the crowded thoughts of my mind to make itself known to me. And whilst I cannot create a fitting response (for only the hearer/receiver gets to decide if my utterance or action is fitting), I can signifying my willingness to participate by issuing an invitation to language to play.  

I will be the first to admit I do not always dwell in this place. And I need help occasionally finding it again for it is so easily covered over by a culture that values the head more than the heart. A wise friend framed it this way…in the heat of the moment, take a step back and ask yourself if your response is grounded in love or fear. If fear, what would it look like to participate from love? Choose love.  The good news here is that flip-flopping is welcomed!

As you listen to the voiced pain in your communities, both individually and corporately…what is God calling you to do to “breathe life into dead spaces” and respond in love?