20 September 2007

What's in a Label?

Labels are funny things! I recently listened intently as one person called me “quite conservative” to my face. Her words and her expression (even coupled with her bright smile) seemed to give that label – “quite conservative” – just a hint of undesirability. But when my ears heard the words, my mind silently and gleefully thought, “Well, thank you very much!” Obviously, for this lady “quite conservative” was not the most glowing compliment, but my ego rejoiced in it nonetheless. So, what’s in a label?

We seem to use labels to “put people in their place.” I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way; though it certainly can, and often does, mean that. What I mean is that we like to use labels to classify and categorize the people with whom we associate. Somehow it makes us understand them and where they come from. Somehow it helps us know how to relate to them. Perhaps it’s also a defense mechanism that allows us to keep our distance and not get too terribly close.

We also like to label ourselves so that we may be included with certain desirable people or groups and not be mistakenly identified with other people or groups. After all, one might proudly wear the label “conservative” just so he/she won’t be mistaken as…are you ready?…a “liberal”! (Ooooo!) And it works in reverse too: some may delight in wearing the label “liberal” (or even “moderate”) because, well, “conservative,” somehow just sounds too mean and nasty.

Such things may be quite commonplace in social and political realms, and, alas, they also rear their heads in the Church. But it makes me pause to ask: “What’s in a label?”

I mean, I really don’t mind being called “conservative” – even “quite conservative” – if that properly means preserving the faith once delivered to the saints, holding on to the true Gospel message of sins forgiven and true life given in Jesus Christ, and even doing my best faithfully to practice the Church’s liturgy, just as the Lutheran Confessions summon us to do. Call me “conservative” with whatever meaning-heightening modifier you wish. I’ll gladly wear that label.

However, if “conservative” somehow means something undesirable or negative, such as “stodgy,” “not with the times,” “unwilling to change simply for the sake of change,” then we’d better sit down and talk. I guess any word can be given a negative connotation so as to put someone else in a place that they may not wish to find themselves. I suppose a label can be plastered on someone so as to lead them into a position or opinion closer to one’s own. That’s the problem with labels: they end up being thinly veiled attempts at manipulation and/or control.

So, let me try on some other labels and see how they fit.

Laying “conservatism” (whatever that means) aside, I can also be “quite liberal,” if you know what I mean. The great, God-given message of liberated life in Christ, of sins freely forgiven, of boundless reconciliation with the Holy Trinity, of freely living as God’s redeemed child with all of His other children in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church – well, it’s just too good to preserve inside. I just have to let it out. I just have to proclaim it and deliver it through the gifts that God has given. I gladly, at least to the best of my limited ability, give out the message of God’s free, liberating life and salvation, and I do so quite liberally. I’ll do it every chance I get, both from the pulpit and in face to face conversation. I can be “quite liberal” – quite free – in proclaiming and delivering the grace and mercy of God that liberates from sin and death.

But somehow I doubt that’s what most people mean when they label someone else “a liberal.” Usually, the pejorative gear kicks into overdrive and the engine of suspicions becomes overheated. “A liberal” might be someone who plays fast and loose with conventional wisdom or accepted statements, values, or ideas, or at least seems to in the eyes of some. Perhaps we’d best be careful about such a label.

And just for kicks, let me try on a couple more labels just for size. I would be quite happy to wear the label “CATHOLIC.” (No, I’m not yelling; I’m just tweaking the conventional wisdom that says “Catholic” with big-C means one thing, perhaps not so acceptable to some, while “catholic” with small-c means something much more desirable. I say capitalize the whole word and avoid that silly little game! J) I know, for some, wearing the label “CATHOLIC” might give pause, but really it means something much better than submitting to papal authority based in Rome. I’d gladly wear the label “CATHOLIC” because it means that I’m identified with the Church “according to the whole,” with the teaching that has been passed down through the centuries, with the Gospel that restores and unites peoples and persons in the Body of Christ the whole world over.

And the final label I’d like to try on for size is “ORTHODOX.” (Again, not yelling; just trying to focus on more than the customary, inch-deep “big-letter vs. little-letter” debate.) I know it’s another label that can too often be said with a slur or that can conjure up foreign images (not to mention, icons?). However, “ORTHODOX” is a great label to wear, for it speaks of teaching and praising rightly. It speaks of holding to (can you say, “conserving”?) the right teaching of life with God that comes from Jesus Christ crucified and risen and was passed down to us through the Apostles and the Church founded on their message. It also speaks of right praise, right practice, right ways of freely giving out the gifts of our Lord’s blood-bought forgiveness, life and salvation (there’s that “liberal” notion again!).

So, what’s in a label? I guess it depends on whom you ask, or who happens to use the label. I suppose I cannot stop others from putting labels on me, but I don’t have to let such labels stick. So if you think you have me figured out, you might want to do more than just call me something like “quite conservative”; you might try sitting down to chat, and about things of substance. You never know, you just might find out that labels cannot replace really getting to know who a person is, where he/she comes from, and what he/she stands for. You never know, we may have more in common than first supposed, and we may learn, by God’s grace, to rely on Him to bring us closer together in His Body.

Until then, I’m just glad to be a “conservative-liberal-cATHOLIC-oRTHODOX pastor” who must rely on God’s grace in Christ Jesus just as much as the next person!

Any labels that you would like to wear…or love to tweak?

No comments: