Friday, September 30, 2016

Send in your second

I'm among the millions of Americans obsessed with the musical Hamilton. You might even say I'm #ham4ham. There's much to love about Lin-Manuel Miranda's masterpiece, which tells the story of the rise of founding father Alexander Hamilton,whose life is intertwined with and ultimately ended by Aaron Burr in a duel. I'm particularly fascinated with the darker aspects of the show: the dueling, and in particular, the idea of a "second".

So I did some research. According to PBS:

"In a typical duel, each party acted through a second. The seconds' duty, above all, was to try to reconcile the parties without violence. An offended party sent a challenge through his second. If the recipient apologized, the matter usually ended. If he elected to fight, the recipient chose the weapons and the time and place of the encounter. Up until combat began, apologies could be given and the duel stopped. After combat began, it could be stopped at any point after honor had been satisfied."

Here's more about seconds from a random website with a dueling-themed t-shirt:

"...The role of the dueling second was crucial and necessary to the duel– the role of a second contributed to the legitimacy of the duel itself, because his presence alone made it virtually impossible for the dueling parties to stage a fake or illegitimate duel. The principal had to choose his second wisely because not only was the second responsible for negotiating the terms of the duel, but he had to be present to ensure that the duel was conducted with honor by both parties. A Dueling second, according to Code Duello, had the right to intervene and join in a duel if he felt that the duel was not facilitated in good faith. Therefore, it was an honor to be chosen a second." 

In the musical, the duel which took Hamilton's life was precipitated by Hamilton's endorsement of Thomas Jefferson for President over Aaron Burr in the election of 1800, which Aaron Burr took as a personal slight. Both characters had past experiences with duels and thought them childish and immature. But in the end, satisfaction of honor prevailed over common sense and Hamilton's story was cut short.

As I've served churches alongside my husband, I've noticed many Christians are afraid of conflict. Conflict itself isn't bad, but how we handle it can be. If we had to loop in two other parties to settle an argument, would that help? In an age where independence is highly valued, do we think acting through a second is weak? Gossipy?

If I'm being completely honest, I have no idea who I'd choose as my second if I were challenged to a duel tomorrow. Do you? It confirms a belief I've held for a while that our connections to people in our modern age of social media and globalization are more wide than deep, more acquaintance than friend. As I've gotten older, I've gained many Facebook friends and Twitter followers but have lost the real, deep friendships I enjoyed in high school and college. Chalk it up to busyness or itinerancy or a particular stage of parenting, but it's true for me and I'd wager it's been true for you at some point in your life: we don't have seconds anymore.

In contentious business or legal matters we use mediators. Both parties in a troubled marriage might turn to a counselor for guidance. In church, we might convene a committee to work through a problem. These are modern-day seconds.

Social media is the modern dueling ground. It's easier than ever to wound (though not mortally) an offending party. But without our trusty second giving us the time and space to process or a time and a place to settle it, we can make rash decisions that can have long-acting consequences. I'm not saying dueling is a better system, but at least the duelists could see their enemy. They could look him in the eye, and so could their second. These days, we hide behind screens and hurl our insults at both no one and everyone in moments flat.

Do we need to bring back seconds? Who is your second?

Friday, September 2, 2016

Best seat in the house

So. many. questions. all the time.
I think I am socially awkward. I'm a textbook extrovert, meaning I get energy from spending time with other people rather than by being by myself, but I'm not always graceful about it. I never know where I fit in the social hierarchy of people at a party (or a meeting, or a conference, or a worship service, or a small group...), and my inner dialog goes, "am I just the spouse of an invited guest, a close friend of the hostess, just an acquaintance, in the wrong place entirely? WHERE DO I SIT?" I've written about this awkwardness before.

So I was relieved to learn that I'm not alone. I recently heard a story on NPR that confirmed my suspicions that humans are not always good at defining friendships or social relationships. In fact, we're really bad at it. Studies have shown that about half the time, people we consider to be our closest confidantes don't feel the same way about us and might not even include us in a list of their top 5 friends. Half the time! It's not just in my head. Awkward high school lunch table survivors, unite!

Todd preached on Luke 14:7-11 last Sunday, and I realized that Jesus had something to say about seating chart politics, too:  
When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: "When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
In Jesus' time, banquets or wedding feasts were all about the social hierarchy. Where one sat was an outer sign of one's status. Greco-Roman society did not consider humility a virtue, but Jewish law in the book of Sirach advised careful attention to one's tendency for greed. Jesus took this law even further and made humility a cornerstone of his teaching. 

This kind of social hierarchy guidance is helpful in avoiding embarrassing seating scenarios, but it's not all that great for fostering authentic relationships.

Jesus' words give me an answer to my social seating anxiety: humility and gratitude. I am to place others above myself and be grateful for opportunities to be in community with others. 

I don't need to come to the party with an agenda or a role to play, I simply need to be there--my presence is enough. It doesn't matter who I am or what titles are attached to my name, my host extended the invitation to spend time with me. This frees me up to use my energy meeting new people and deepening existing friendships instead of worrying about where I sit. The best seat in the house is the one where I am seated among people I can learn from, listen to, and love.

How do you navigate tricky social situations? Where is your favorite place to sit at a party?