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Southern Discomfort ~ Jeff Crosno

Southern Discomfort

     When the front desk clerk of the hotel initially welcomed me as a new guest by calling me “Sweetheart,” her greeting reminded me that I had touched down in the South, and they do things differently around here. Returning to North Carolina each fall for a conference at Duke, over time my Southern friends have graciously and very patiently explained to me what no Pacific Northwestern Yankee might otherwise fathom regarding the finer points of their way of life. As the beneficiary of these annual reorientations, eventually I learned to anticipate that ordering “regular” in many Southern restaurants meant that I would soon be sipping sweet iced tea. My friends also helped me to understand that many chefs working below the Mason-Dixon line joyfully operate under the conviction that if the main entrée can’t be fried in bacon grease, it just ain’t worth eating! But when being greeted as “Sweetheart” by a complete stranger after flying all day across the country, I had to admit that the tone of kindness and civility in her lilting, Carolina-accented voice was as smooth and comforting as a slice of pecan pie.
     Now admittedly, in the previous paragraph I was trafficking in some of the more obvious stereotypes of Southern culture. Actually, here in the South that can at times become a form of parlor entertainment given the way folks enjoy making fun of their own eccentricities as a way of subtly reasserting their own down-home pride. On previous trips, one Duke alum whom I first met and befriended during the years of our doctoral studies at Princeton often used to keep me laughing with his seemingly inexhaustible supply of what we might call cultural profiling jokes, all of which typically began with that telling phrase, you know you’re in the South when:
· Your wife’s hairdo can be ruined by a ceiling fan;
· Your front porch collapses and four hunting dogs get killed;
· You’ve got more than three cousins named “Bubba”;
· On Thanksgiving Day you have to decide which pet to eat;
· You’re not surprised to find boiled peanuts, movie rentals and fishing bait in the same store;
· You run your car into a ditch but know you need not panic given that four men in the cab of a four-wheel drive pickup equipped with a tow chain and a twelve-pack of beer will be along shortly. But never try to help them when they arrive on the scene. Just stay completely out of their way . . . for this is what they live for;
· The local grammar requires that you remember the following rules: “Y’all” is singular. “All y’all” is plural. And finally, “All y’all’s” is an example of the plural possessive form.
     At this juncture, you may well be wondering whether or not there is a point of reflection that will soon be forthcoming. And at least part of what I’m thinking about today is the annual Faith Promise weekend focusing our congregational attention upon opportunities to leave a legacy of blessing on other cultures around the world through personal, sacrificial gifts in support of evangelistic outreach and compassionate ministry. In other words, my only intention in subjecting all y’all to these introductory remarks about my own recent adventures in exploring Southern culture is to provoke some consideration of the ways our congregation can accept responsibility to participate in God’s global conspiracy of loving compassion for others. I’m especially interested in seeing what all of us might be willing to do in reaching out toward those distinctively other ones who share with us an identity as the beloved of God, despite the fact that at present their social and cultural location differs so significantly from our own setting in the world. For the question posed by our annual Faith Promise commitment to global missions and compassionate ministry is whether or not we will make ourselves available to God as those who are truly open for business in loving and serving those who may not seem at first glance to have much in common with us.
     Before we allow ourselves to dismiss such questions, content that a church like ours is already committed to the value of inclusion in our dealings with others, let me suggest that there is a world of difference between inclusion and belonging. The problem with affirming that ours is a fully inclusive church is that the people who may receive a friendly greeting from us on Sunday morning may in fact be experiencing inclusion without at the same time feeling any real, strong sense of belonging. Just because you are allowed to take up space in a room does not in and of itself provide a guarantee that anybody else actually loves you. Earlier this week in the conference I was attending at Duke, I heard theologian John Swinton from the United Kingdom tell the story of an elderly woman from his congregation who regularly attends weekly worship and the tea and coffee time of fellowship that follows. While she was always made to feel perfectly welcome by the other parishioners for that hour-and-a-half of worship and social exchange every Sunday, she had come to understand that her only friendships with these other congregants lasted precisely ninety minutes each week. For the rest of the week she lived alone in silence, for nobody bothered to call on her or check on her welfare. As Swinton pointed out, she is fully included in the life of her church, but she does not really yet belong. And she will not finally belong to that church until the moment that the fact of her physical presence or absence as part of the Body of Christ becomes a truly personal concern to somebody else. Simply being allowed into the room does not mean that you are really loved. Honest love always requires that someone else actually gives a rip whether or not you are around.
     Here’s the deal regarding what we will be attempting to do again this year on our Faith Promise weekend: We will be committing ourselves to demonstrate in very personal, tangible ways that we will be useful to God in helping bring others to a full sense of belonging within our global family of faith. I don’t expect that the process will always feel comfortable and convenient, for helping someone come to know that they are actually loved and not merely tolerated in my life and family will usually require me to take pains to demonstrate that fact. And perhaps that is always the problem for those who have been called to follow Jesus. For as happy as Jesus might one day be to welcome me to the magnificent place he has been preparing all of these years, I suspect he will still think to ask me that eternal question: Where are all the others?

Jeff Crosno