After Ricardo's soccer game last night I stayed in a metro area hotel room, anticipating my early flight to Atlanta this morning. I am using a week of continuing education to participate in this year's Festival of Homiletics (a preaching conference). I have been in Atlanta a couple of times before this week, and I have come to enjoy the city. It is richly diverse, nestled in the bosom of the deep south, a fascinating mix of success and disappointment. In the summer residents refer to it as "Hot-lanta," but the forecast for this week actually shows it to be cooler here than back home in Minnesota.
Arriving uneventfully in Atlanta this morning, I picked up a rental car and drove to my hotel. There were, of course, hotels closer to the conference location, but when it comes to hotel rooms I am notoriously cost-conscious. I no longer stay in cut-rate hotel chains (I've traveled enough now that I just can't do that any longer), but with the power of the internet I can usually find myself a good room at a good price. This time I was able to find a great Doubletree Hotel, but it is several miles from the conference site. I figure the $75 a night difference is worth driving five miles or so and justifies the rental car.
Every time I get into a rental car, though, I am reminded anew of what a set up for disaster it is. The traveler is probably a bit disoriented after a crowded flight, followed by (in this case) a packed shuttle to the rental car area. Once there the driver-to-be is summarily disgorged from the shuttle to pick up his or her rental vehicle, most likely a vehicle nothing like the one back home. After stowing luggage, properly organizing the rental contract information, adjusting mirrors, moving the seat and steering wheel, turning on the air conditioning (or heat, as the case may be) and the radio, the driver is ready for the next step in the process: immediate immersion into some of the city's busiest traffic. Balancing the need to drive safely, merge correctly into the flow of traffic, scan directions to one's destination and adjusting to a new car -- all within five minutes -- is a daunting task. I've gotten used to it over the years, but it still makes me feel some trepidation. Fortunately I made it safely to my hotel, checked in and was able to take a short nap before this evening's opening festivities.
Two of my favorite clergy-type people in the world were scheduled for tonight: Barbara Brown Taylor (an episcopal priest who "walked away" from the Church to become a professor) and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. I have read and followed their lives for a number of years now, so to hear them in person was a real treat.
Taylor spoke eloquently of why it is that the South is so renowned for its particular version of Christian faith. She masterfully tied together the social and spiritual histories of the South in a profound way. Her conclusion, and my summary will sound much more perfunctory than her elegant words, is that the Bible is for "losers," by which she means those who have come through challenging difficult times. Those who have encountered loss find much in the Scriptures to help interpret our world. Her appeal was that people of Christian faith might remember that "suffering is less a problem to be solved than it is a mystery to be endured." In particular, she asked people of faith to consider how we find ourselves in the Scriptures and how that affects our interpretation of what we see there.
The crowning moment of the night, however, was to hear from Archbishop Desmond Tutu. His physical appearance is increasingly more frail, but his joyous enthusiasm is fresh and contagious. He spoke of the ways apartheid imprisoned his country (the Republic of South Africa) for so many decades, but joyously recounted the freedom that is now part of their lives. He thanked those in the United States and other western countries for standing in support of the anti-apartheid leaders years ago. He spoke about how far racial relations in the United States have progressed in the past fifty years. Since we are in Atlanta, he made reference to the ways in which this part of the country separated and discriminated against people of color, but how it is that things are different now. I admire his ability to let go of possible resentments and bitterness in order to acknowledge positive change.
The heart of his message was that God has created all of humanity in God's image. His recurring words were, "Be who you are!" To be created and to live in God's image means that to treat any other human in any degrading or discriminatory fashion is "blasphemy. It is to spit in God's face!" His final words, in recognizing the significance of electing our country's first non-white president, were to remind his listeners that Americans have changed our cultural landscape as well. We, like those in South Africa, are seeing changes within the social landscape. With a smile on his face and joy in his voice, his final words to us were, "Aren't you glad you don't have to say you're Canadians anymore?!" While I'm sure not every appreciated his political stance, I hope they recognized what I understood him to say: that the election of an African-American president does more to identify our country as making racial progress than mere words. And those who might have felt disappointment or shame in the past regarding our country's checkered racial history might be able to respond with more pride than before.
In closing the service Archbishop Tutu offered the words of St. Francis of Assisi which begin, "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace." Concluding those familiar words, he offered a blessing in his native tongue. It was quite an inspiring evening, and I am now left with a question I need to answer for myself. If I am created in God's image, who does that make me, and how do I find ways to be authentically who I am?