Monday, November 26, 2012

Home Teaching and the Miracle of Interruption

[Cross-posted to By Common Consent]

Yesterday, I and another member of our church went to talk and counsel with a family in our congregation. (In Mormon parlance, this is called "home teaching" or "visit teaching.") They're a young couple, married less than a year. He was born and raised in the faith, but unfortunately also had made some bad choices and developed some addictive behaviors along the way--enough that he ultimately found himself in prison and excommunicated from the church. He's now on parole, and it was through his and his extended family's efforts that the woman he'd met and was dating chose to be baptized into the faith. Now they are expecting their first child, and the real difficulty of the path before them--the legal as well as spiritual one--as they make plans for their family has crashed down on them, hard. As it happens, I'm a little familiar with some of the behaviors that ultimately led him to place where he now finds himself, and I'd like to believe I was able to offer some solace and support. But it's hard to tell. Our congregation's boundaries were recently redrawn, and I was asked to take on some new responsibilities at church, and so I am suddenly meeting new people, confronting new problems. Thrust into this situation by choices I made--as, in a very different but still similar sense, this couple also find themselves confronted by the unexpected, despite all the ways in which their own choices put them in the place they are--I do the best I can....but you never know what will come of these interruptions.

Late last night, after returning home, I finish a movie I'd been watching over the previous two evenings: The Interrupters. It's a harsh and difficult documentary to watch, but I finished it, thinking about the home teaching visit I'd completed hours before, and wished that I could find some way to show this movie (whose language is off-the-charts vulgar) to my fellow church members--all of whom are, in one way or another, asked to do what the characters in this film do: interrupt the lives of others. Walk into violence, or despair, or poverty, or confusion, or irresponsibility, or ignorance, and pose a challenge, send a message, offer a helping hand. The movie's many parts build slowly, but by the end of the film's two hours the different pieces of its tale of CeaseFire, the brave outreach organization which sends former gang members into the streets of Chicago to confront and heal violence, come together in a manner both haunting and inspiring.

Ammena Matthews is just one of those whose belief in her cause, her willingness to speak truth to the bad paths others are on, presents an example which ought to thrill and shame every Christian who has ever been in the position, and perhaps felt the expectation, or even had the responsibility, of standing up and calling out, of interrupting.

Here in the United States our Thanksgiving holiday is past, and for many the Christmas season has begun. Christmas means many things to me, but one of those many things is that wintertime, this season of endings and beginnings and gifts being given, is so often a time of quiet surprise. Of interruption, one might even say. The sudden freeze, the unexpected blizzard, the rush to get things done and then the unanticipated moment when it all halts and holds still. In the Mormon faith, those of us with home or visit teaching responsibilities are supposed to check in with one another at least once a month, and so of course--this being America--it's become a rueful commonplace that every rushes to get things done at the end of each month. That's what I was doing yesterday--but meeting and speaking with that young family slowed me down, put me on the spot, obliged me to speak more than just the usual rote pleasantries. If I interrupted them, they--their needs, their struggles--also interrupted me.

Nobody could ever mistake Hannah Arendt for a believing Christian, and yet in her political philosophy, she saw the root of all real, meaningful human action in the miracle of interruption: the unexpected moment when our own responsibilities and routines suddenly present us with moments of freedom, of being an authoritative actor in our own lives as well as others. Riffing on St. Augustine, she wrote:

Man does not possess freedom so much as he, or better his coming into the world, is equated with the appearance of freedom in the universe....God created man in order to introduce into the world the faculty of beginning....[T]he human capacity which corresponds to this power, which, in the words of the Gospel, is capable of removing mountains, is not will but faith. The work of faith, actually its product, is what the gospels called "miracles," a word with many meanings in the New Testament and difficult to understand. We can neglect the difficulties here and refer only to those passages where miracles are clearly not supernatural events but only what all miracles, those performed by men no less than those performed by a divine agent, always must be: namely, interruptions of some natural series of events, of some automatic process, in whose context they constitute the wholly unexpected....Every act, seen from the perspective not of the agent but of the process in whose framework it occurs and whose automatism it interrupts, is a "miracle"--that is, something that could not be expected. (Arendt, "What is Freedom," Between Past and Future, 1993, pp. 167-169)

Arendt, a secular Jew, made this Christian observation even more strongly--and, considering the present time of year, more seasonally appropriate--in The Human Condition, when she wrote about "unpredictability": "The miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, 'natural,' ruin is ultimately the fact of natality, in which the faculty of action is ontologically rooted....Only the full experience of this capacity can bestow upon human affairs faith and hope....that found perhaps its most glorious and most succinct expression in the few words with the Gospels announced their 'glad tidings': 'A child has been born unto us.'" (p.247)

As anyone who knows anything about contemporary Mormonism can tell you, all of us grumble about home and visiting teaching--that it's a chore and a hassle, that it's ineffective and inauthentic, that it pulls us away from what we already know how to do and confronts us with the Sartrean hell that is other people. (Okay, maybe only I bring up Sartre, but you get the idea.) And for certain, there is a basis for all of those complaints. But going about my own "automatic process" yesterday put me before someone else, whose similar wish for some dependable routine has left him entangled him in painful legal and moral quandary, and--last night, at least--in need of someone to stick his arm out, cry halt, open a hand, and try to help pull him into a new place, to--in some small and hopeful way--perhaps even play midwife to the birth of something new, preceding the new actual birth in their family which will, one again, interrupt all that they imagine their daily automatic lives will be. That was a good thing, a real thing. Something I need more of. Jesus was, truly, the ultimate interruption; if I, or any of us, claim to be His people, then we need to take action, and watch for and be part of His continuing unpredictable and interruptive miracles, day by day.

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