The Rev. Rob Courtney
Fr. Rob is the Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church & School
Have you heard of SUMMA? It's an initiative of Sewanee's School of Theology, the seminary I attended. SUMMA is a theological debate camp for high-school students--which sounds like something every high schooler is just dying to do, right?! That's what I thought when I first heard of it, but it's well-attended and has been going strong for several years now.
When Bishop Gray was here at St. Paul's he brought SUMMA to my oldest daughter's attention, and encouraged her to participate. She attended SUMMA for three years, and then served a year as a counselor. It was an important part of her formation as a Christian and as a person. Our own Mtr. Gina Jenkins, chaplain for our school, is the SUMMA camp activities director this summer.
The question that this camp is really trying to get students to is the title of this blog post: "Do you always have to be right?" Maybe even deeper than that, "Are you always right?" The very nature of respectful debate teaches an important lesson about there being multiple sides to issues, and that most issues are more nuanced than they might seem to be at first. The camp's motto, and main goal, is teaching young people what it truly means to "speak the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15).
"We aren't supposed to be infants any longer who can be tossed and blown around by every wind that comes from teaching with deceitful scheming and the tricks people play to deliberately mislead others. Instead, by speaking the truth with love, let's grow in every way into Christ, who is the head." - Ephesians 4:14-16a
One needn't go further than the comment section of any news story or social media post to find people disagreeing with one another in less than loving ways. What most people seem to want more than anything else today in the arguments I sometimes encounter is simply to be right. "Speaking the truth in love" is a lesson for young people and adults alike, and is a Christian way of being that is utterly countercultural.
The way it works each year at SUMMA is that the entire camp session revolves around one "resolution" that the young people spend the week researching and learning to debate from both the yea and nay sides. Here's this year's resolution:
Resolved: "Complete separation between the state and religion is best for the state and best for religion."
Stipulation: Our resolution is a statement by Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, as quoted by Federal Judge William Overton, in a decision overturning Arkansas Act 590, the "Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution Science" law of 1981. We will debate the statement in the limited context of teaching science in public school.
Where do you fall on this resolution? How would you debate it?
I personally love this resolution, and can imagine having fun debating both sides. There is one side I instinctively agree with more than the other, but I think it's important to understand opposing arguments, and I think it would be interesting to try deeply to understand those arguments. Doing so can only refine my position, help me to uncover the nuance, and to understand how an "opponent" might come to a different conclusion that I do.
As people directed by scripture to "speak the truth with love" we have to be willing to do two things. 1) We have to speak the truth as we see it in ways that are respectful of others, and 2) we have to acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, we're not right about everything.
Or, in the words of Oliver Cromwell as he pleaded with his opponents, "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken."
"I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken." - Oliver Cromwell
When you're about to post that comment on a social media post, this might be a good thing to ask yourself. I've also heard it said that a good set of questions to ask before I speak is, "Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?" Such self-reflective questions are a sure-fire way to get myself thinking about whether what I'm about to say is really loving or not.
Such questions don't just apply to social media, but also everyday disagreements with the people around us.
SUMMA is doing important work of combatting polarization in the Church and in our culture. It's work I wish I'd done as a young person. We could all do with a dose of "speaking the truth with love." What do you think about this as a proposed resolution for today:
Resolved: It is more important to be loving than to be right.
The Rev. Rob Courtney
Fr. Rob is the Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church & School
Encountering panhandlers is a regular part of driving around New Orleans. One question I receive regularly from people is whether or not they should give money to panhandlers. You may have wondered about this as well.
About a year ago, signs began showing up at some of the I-10 exits in New Orleans East that say, "For traffic safety, please don't give to persons in the roadway. It's OK to say no to panhandlers!" Apparently, some incidents with aggressive panhandlers led to the signs.
Safety is certainly a concern, and if you feel unsafe then trust your gut. The sign is correct: "It's OK to say no to panhandlers!" especially if you feel unsafe. Yes, it's even okay for Christians to say no.
Jesus, nevertheless, taught us to love our neighbors as ourselves, and there may be other ways for us to both stay safe and serve those in need.
Consider an Alternative
Rather than giving to panhandlers, you might consider giving to organizations that help serve those experiencing homelessness, food insecurity, or who are otherwise at risk. At St. Paul's we help feed at risk individuals every month through Lantern Light. This is a safe, and wonderful way to serve people in need, and you can do so at several different levels.
Twice a year we also collect food and other items for St. Anna's Food Bank who specialize in serving at- risk families. Keep an eye out for your next opportunity to do some shopping for a family this fall.
Around the city there are many other resources for homeless or at-risk persons. UNITY of Greater New Orleans has put together this helpful directory of resources. You might consider choosing one that's meaningful to you to support.
If I Choose to Give to Panhandlers, Am I Being an Enabler?
This is another question people regularly ask. By the question, people presumably mean, "Will they just use the money to buy drugs or alcohol?" There are a couple of ways to think about this. First, how do we really know that we're enabling someone? Is it always fair to assume that anyone who is panhandling, or experiencing homelessness, is a substance abuser? Perhaps they are, but perhaps not.
Secondly, is it really for us to dictate how someone uses the money we give?
A priest once told me a story about walking with a parishioner down a city block and the two of them encountered a panhandler. The priest was surprised to see this woman pull out a $100 bill and hand it to the panhandler. "Are you crazy?" he asked indignantly as they moved on. "Do you know how that guy might use that kind of money?" The woman looked at him and said, "I'm not on that committee. I'm on the committee that says, 'God so loved that world that he gave.'"
Was she wrong to give so extravagantly? I certainly admire her commitment to give from her faith position which says that God gives to all of us whether we are deserving or not, whether we waste the gift or not. In her mind God gives without qualification, and so she should, too.
What About The Kids?
Some people worry that they are setting a bad example for their kids if they say "no" to a panhandler. It certainly teaches a good lesson for our kids to see us being generous to people in need. It's good, though, as we've already mentioned, to defer to safety. I've talked to one parent who uses the signs on the interstate as an opportunity to teach their kids that stopping on the roadway might not be safe--for you, for other drivers, or for the panhandler. You could then talk with them about other ways you and your family can serve people in need.
Some parents will choose to give, but not to give money directly. On occasion at St. Paul's we will make "Blessing Bags" for people to pick up on their way out of church and to keep in the car. This is also something you can easily do at home yourself. Just Google "blessing bags" and you'll find all kinds of resources to help you discern the best things to put in the bags. People living on the street, for instance, have a lot of problems with their feet since they do so much walking, and can always use socks. Maybe you can put a hygiene kit, a bottle of water, or a granola bar in the bag--or even a directory of resources like the one linked above. The kids can even help you shop for the items and put together the bags. There are lots of creative ideas out there!
Consider Another Alternative
What if you aren't comfortable giving, or if you simply don't have anything to give? If it feels safe I will usually give to panhandlers if I have some cash, but most of the time I do not keep cash on me. I use my debit card for almost everything. What I will usually do instead is take my cue from the book of Acts. In chapter 3 we read this story:
1 Peter and John were going up to the temple at three o'clock in the afternoon, the established prayer time. 2 Meanwhile, a man crippled since birth was being carried in. Every day, people would place him at the temple gate known as the Beautiful Gate so he could ask for money from those entering the temple. 3 When he saw Peter and John about to enter, he began to ask them for a gift. 4 Peter and John stared at him. Peter said, "Look at us!" 5 So the man gazed at them, expecting to receive something from them. 6 Peter said, "I don't have any money, but I will give you what I do have. In the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, rise up and walk!" 7 Then he grasped the man's right hand and raised him up. At once his feet and ankles became strong.
When I don't have cash (or a blessing bag), I will follow Peter's example and offer what I do have in Christ's Name. The small miracle you or I can perform in this situation is simply to offer our attention to someone. I will say something like, "Hi, how are you? What's your name? [Name], I don't have any money today, but is there anything I can be praying for on your behalf?" I'm frequently moved 1) by how pleased most people are that I take the time to ask their name and acknowledge them--to treat them with dignity and respect, and 2) what their prayer requests are.
Give this a try sometime and see what kind of reaction you receive.