What is a religion story when it surfaces in the Style section of the New York Times? Let's add another layer of complexity: what if that story is told as part of an ongoing series that aims to chronicle a generation through story-telling and personal reflection? "Generation B" (focused on Baby Boomers), written by staffer Michael Winerip, is part column and part feature, using a narrow lens to make broad claims about its topic. This gives him a good deal of latitude, but it also makes it hard for readers to mine his articles for anything conclusive.
In his Sunday column this week, Winerip chronicles the transformation of a liberal Presbyterian clergyman, Tim Ives, as he eschews politically-tinged sermons in favor of those focused on the pastoral needs of his flock.
The frame of this story really bothers me. Winerip doesn't quote anyone else to back up his assertions, which, frankly, seems purely personal and highly debatable. If Baby Boomers don't believe in changing others, why are are there so many in the media, politics, and the teaching profession?
But to say boomers continue to promote societal division ignores a change that people go through as they age. It's not so much that one's politics change, it's the need to broadcast them that does. It's a realization that we can't change others -- not even our own children -- as much as we'd hoped.
The story he tells seems both deeper and richer than his setting.
Yet there is much to like here. So often we see liberal or conservative clergy categorized according to their views on issues. Winerip doesn't do that -- his clergyman is a human being, not a set of opinions.
Old-fashioned, leisurely narrative is a rarity in an environment where stories need to be constantly updated. Lots of writers would give their eyeteeth for an anecdote like this. Winerip gets out of the way and let's Ives tell and interpret his own story.
For six months, he did not attend church. But he loves Christmas, and on a whim, during the third Sunday of Advent in 2004, he ducked into one near his home, the Presbyterian Church of Mount Kisco. "I was late," he said. "I opened the door. Services had started. The first open pew, I sat down quickly as possible."
And there, sitting beside him, of all people, was a trustee from his old Chappaqua church, a man he'd once exchanged bitter words with. "It could be a coincidence," Mr. Ives said. "But I didn't think so." James Joyce would have called it a moment of epiphany, but to the minister it felt like God's hand.
He believes he was being reminded that a righteous life is about more than being right. "God sat me down right next to the person he wanted me to reconcile with," Mr. Ives said. "Life should be about trying to make room for your enemies, loving your enemies. I had missed this. I'd appreciated it academically, but I hadn't got it spiritually."
I am puzzled by the epiphany reference -- what is an epiphany (even to Joyce, with his Irish Catholic brilliance and gift for nuance) but a moment of revelation?
What pastor hasn't wrestled with what is personal, political or pastoral? What congregant hasn't wondered now and then whether his or her pastor has blurred that line? And how often do you read about the spiritual journey of a liberal clergyperson that doesn't focus on his or her political persuasions? In telling the story of this New York clergyman, replete with ordinary and extraordinary moments of frustration and burnout and grace, Winerip has done, perhaps, both more and less than he intended.
Picture of the Temple of Reason is from Wikimedia Commons