One of the reasons I am excited about my job as leadership development minister for social justice and mission, is that speaking up and out is a vocation of mine. It is a calling. I know it is because, even when I want to, I simply cannot keep my mouth shut.
I remember a time when I was a Junior in high school. There was an all-school assembly and the student body of ~650 were gathered in the gym. I remember vividly that it was a presentation by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival Company because Shakespeare is one of my passions. Throughout the whole presentation, the students were noisy and restive. Maybe the feeling started there.
Anyway, the man who portrayed William Shakespeare for the Company had one arm which was significantly shorter than the other. Also, that arm had a peculiar palsy. Wil (I never did learn the actor’s name) stood in front of the entire student body and shared his art with us. He did not draw attention to his arm, but neither did he try to disguise it.
At the end of their presentation, there was a question and answer session. A girl in the bleachers behind me asked a question designed to draw attention to Wil’s arm and its palsy. It was a mean and inappropriate response to the gift the Company had shared with us. I remember feeling anger and shame like a lightning bolt.
I did not think. I raised my hand. My friends tried to stop me. They were whispering things and tugging on my shirt. To this day, I have no idea what they said because my mind was a white-hot clarity of intent. When a teacher called on me, I stood up, in my school gym, in front of half a thousand of my peers, and I opened my mouth.
I first thanked the Shakespeare Company members, and then I apologized to them for the rudeness of my classmates. I turned around and faced those classmates and I told them I was ashamed that I was a part of them. I called into question their manners. “What is wrong with you? Were you raised in a barn?” I remember saying something about the fact that we didn’t even have to be at the assembly and that there was no excuse for treating people with that much disrespect.
I sat down-shaking. My friends shrank away, but I have never once regretted speaking up.
Recently, our United Methodist Church has found itself in the newspapers: a church on trial. Do we mean what we say in The Book of Discipline about the sacred worth of every single human being, or are there some we believe we can live without? Do we mean what we say in our Social Principles when we claim war and homosexuality are incompatible with the teachings and example of Jesus Christ? Are we serious about the requirements we have for ordained elders both in their performance of duties and in their evidence of Christian character? What happens when the execution of one leads to the compromising of the other?
People are standing up,and people are tugging on shirt tails. People are drawing lines and people are crossing lines. People are calling out and people are calling on. People are shouting, “Peace!” and people are whispering, “Peace, peace.”
I am reminded of Luke 4:14-30, where Jesus speaks up and speaks out: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. “
I believe the Holy Spirit empowers us to preach and proclaim. We are neither bullying nor disrespectful when we voice our complaints. God does not invite us to sit silent when we harbor unease or disagreement with the decisions or actions of our peers. Giving voice is a process by which, if we choose to believe in the Holy Spirit integrity of our brothers and sisters in Christ, we may be able to somehow understand one another’s tongues.
So when your head says, “Sit down, you’re rocking the boat,” but your heart says, “Even if you keep silent, surely the very rocks will cry out,” I hope you decide to trust your heart over your head.
Unfortunately, I cannot say that speaking up and speaking out is without serious cost. I am sure in that synagogue long ago, Jesus’ friends tugged on his shirt tails in a futile effort to get him to sit down and shut up. By the end of it, his own synagogue drove him out and tried to kill him. By the end of it, his own followers fled. By the end of it, he was left naked and dying, keeping company in the cross with no one but a murderer and a thief. And yet, never once, have we regretted the day he decided it was time to speak.