They were ancient, I remember thinking. They were old and they were Swiss, and they had a pair of raccoons out back, Rex and Max, who used to go almost giddy whenever the old man would come out to the back yard to feed them. I'll never forget the way he'd take a piece of candy corn in his lips and let one of those silly coons snatch it away, a wacky way to seduce a kiss from those bandana-ed beasts.
They were sweet and warm people, and I rented my very first apartment from them, a rundown trailer about 100-feet away from their house, on a lot in a place that, twenty years before, had likely stood just outside of town, but was no more. I have no idea what the old man had done before retiring. I likely asked because I lived with them for more than a week, until the renter left that old trailer.
Sweet people, I remember. Very conscious of whether or not I was feeling at home with them, sleeping just upstairs. Often wondering how the teaching was going--my first year. At every meal, even breakfast, a dish of cheese slices sat on the table, Swiss cheese. They ate it with almost everything. From them, I gained a love for baby Swiss.
And every night, almost as if I'd ordered it, there'd be a bottle of Huber beer, locally-brewed, right there alongside my plate. My parents weren't tee-totalers, so the beer wasn't shocking. But it came standard with dinner, along with the cheese. The old Swiss couple was likely my first cross-cultural experience, and I didn't have to travel all that far because we were all Wisconsinites. I don't remember if they were church people, nor whether or not they ever went. They didn't pray at every meal, the way I'd been raised.
They were just different--that's what I remember thinking. They were good, sweet people who drank a daily beer or two and ate cheese with every meal, and didn't talk about faith and didn't sing hymns at the piano, didn't even have a piano that I remember; but they loved their tame raccoons.
I was 21 or 22, on my very first job, on my own for the first time, and I remember thinking that I was getting a lesson in my own blinding insularity. Even though they had absolutely no sense of who I was by tribe, by my Dutch Reformed heritage, they were good, sweet people. They were not us exactly--after all, I'd never known anyone who drank a bottle of Huber beer with every meal; but neither were they truly them--neither could I think of them as "of the world." And that was confounding for a day or two, then sweetly liberating.
I don't blame Calvinist theology for teaching me about "us and them," although that lousy bugbear predestination can be and already is blamed for a legion of deviltry. I'm not even sure I'm all that angry about having to learn that people who are not like me--not identifiable by certain culturally distinctive traits--are not necessarily them. I'm not interested in the least in burning my own wooden shoes.
All of us carry a ton of baggage into life; it's just that mine was clearly marked "Dutch Reformed." And what I'm saying is that somewhere along the line I gained the proclivity to separate people into sheep and goats, into right hand and left, into saints and sinners, into us and them, a way of seeing the world that's not altogether easy to shake.
According to Martin Marty's Context, Brian McClaren, of "the emergent church" fame, wrote in Tikkun recently that he remembers being liberated from a confining sense of "us and them."
I remember the great relief I felt when my thinking about call, choosing, or election changed. I was liberated by a new understanding of the story of Abraham. I realized there was a Part A and a Part B to God's promise to Abraham in Genesis 12. Yes, in Part A God says, "I will bless you . . . I will make you a great nation." But that was only half the story, because in Part B God added, "I will make you a blessing . . . all the nations of the world will be blessed through you."
Understanding that Part A was only one part of God's dispensation, his love for the world, was liberating because, McClaren says, "I was no longer able to break apart what God put together, when I included Part B with Part A, God's choice of some was no longer exclusive of others; it was instrumental for others. God no longer played favorites, but, in line with the teaching of Jesus, graciously gave rain and sun to all people."
And finally this: "I believe the idea of exclusive election has twisted sectors of all three Abrahamic faiths. If we perpetuate this misunderstanding, earth's future will be darkened by our religions, not enlightened by them. But if our understanding of chosen-ness, calling, or election can be corrected, wonderful new possibilities can arise. All nations, truly, can be blessed."
To which, Martin Marty says, "Bless him." Me too.
This morning I'm thankful for this guy McClaren, for helping me understand the value of Huber beer, Swiss cheese, and couple of tame raccoons.