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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Geography and Identity

One of these days, I'm going to remember to make time, in my travels as a Hospice Chaplain around the western part of Sussex County, DE, to stop, get out of the car, and take some pictures.

Let the reader understand: Sussex County (AKA "Lower, Slower Delaware" or "LSD") is the southernmost, largest and oldest geographical county of the three counties in the "first state" of Delaware. The first European settlement in the state of Delaware was founded in 1631 near the present-day town of Lewes - in the eastern part of the county.

The three counties in Delaware are Sussex, Kent and New Castle. The three major cities in each of those counties are Georgetown, Dover and Wilmington.

The eastern portion of the county is home to most of Delaware's beaches and many seaside resorts.  Almost 23% of the entire county is made up of water. The western side of the county is the center of Delaware's agriculture industry with more acres of arable land under cultivation than anywhere else in the state.

I believe someone once told me that Sussex County, DE is the largest geographical county east of the Mississippi. I believe it.

I once had a patient in Gumboro - in the west - and had to "rush" to a patient in Bethany Beach who was actively dying and whose family was calling for the chaplain. It took me over an hour and a half - almost two hours - to get there.  Yes, I was doing the speed limit (25 mph in some places, but mostly 50 mph). No, I didn't get lost - although my GPS system doesn't always discriminate between "streets," "lanes," "roads," and "avenues".  Sometimes, the directions on the patient's chart say, "turn into the driveway next to the rusted, bent, unmarked mailbox".

You can get there from here. It just takes some time, is all.

It's also the most conservative part of the state. Here's a clue: Sussex County was the only county of three to vote for Christine "I'm not a witch" O'Donnell.

Can you say, "Tea Party"?

You can still spot people proudly sporting their "Christine O'Donnell for US Senate 2010" T-shirts at the market or gas station.

These folks are nothing if not loyal.

One patient explained it to me this way: "People who live off the land live close to nature. We know how nature is supposed to work. We understand the natural order of things. Killing your own baby 'fore its born ain't natural. Neither is homosexuality. And, every man's got a right to a gun."

I just smile and nod my head and say, "Ah." Just, "Ah." And then I say, "Is that your wedding picture there on the wall? You look so happy. Tell me about that day......"

Driving around the eastern and western portions of Sussex County sometimes feels like you have fallen off the map and are in a different reality altogether.  The east couldn't be more different from the west. While the east has its share of farms, it is mostly oriented to the resort areas. The west includes miles and miles and miles of farms - chicken, mostly, but dairy, horse, goat and even one fairly large bison farm. There are also acres and acres of corn and cash crop. 

Much of it looks fairly idyllic, but some of it just screams of poverty. Trailer homes with rusted downspouts and fallen down porches and patched up roofs with untold numbers of "dead vehicles" and rusted automotive parts and chickens and cats in the front yard. I feel sad just looking at it.

Sometimes, I have patients in those homes. Some are amazingly clean and homey - lots of pictures of family everywhere - with wonderful, strong, loving families who live there.

Others are beyond filthy - stacks of old newspapers everywhere, cluttered with plastic laundry bags filled with "stuff", reeking to high heaven of stale cigarette smoke, grease, body odor and cat excrement - where people with limited education (6-10th grade), basic skills (car mechanics and woodworking and canvass repair and alterations and truck drivers), with less than basic coping mechanisms to deal with illness and the grinding poverty they've known for generations and will most likely never escape.  And lots and lots of all the attendant drama.

So now you know where I spend most of my days.

I'm especially intrigued by the signs that are in front of some of these homes and the untold stories waiting to be told behind their messages.

There's this one sign outside a home. Wooden. Hand painted. On the left is the message: "Antique and vintage guns. Ammunition. Fireworks." On the right is the message: "Pretty Curls Hair Salon." Across the bottom is the message: John 3:16.

Besides the picture it paints of the family in that house, that sign brings a whole new definition to "Mom and Pop store," right?

There is no paucity of small, community, non-denominational churches that seem to pop up out of nowhere. Ex nihilo.  In the western part of the county, nearer the Maryland border, there seems to be a plethora of Mennonite Churches. And, near them, hardware stores and automotive repair shops, gas stations and woodworking shops and stores that sell handmade furniture.

When I'm out in the western part of the county, I frequently pass by this one Mennonite Church with a very intriguing sign which I've grown to love. Indeed, I look for it when I'm in that particular neck of the woods. It says.
Church is an identity, not an activity.
I keep meaning to take a picture of it and send it around to a few churches and dioceses, but I fear I'll just be wasting my time.

"Church is an identity, not an activity." What if we all began to understand that? And, live it out?

The earliest Creedal statement was very simple but highly radical and particularly dangerous to the People of the Way: "Jesus is Lord. We are the Body of Christ." (1 Corinthians 12 - especially vs. 27).

That profession of faith proclaims that no earthly leader has more power or authority than Jesus. And, because of the gift of the Holy Spirit given to us at the Resurrection, Jesus lives in us.

As I said, at the time, that was a very dangerous statement of faith.

Christians who embrace the catholicity of the church understand that our identity flows from the Nicene Creed's statement of the identity of the church as being "one, holy, catholic and apostolic."

From this foundational identity flows three characteristics - or, what Pope Benedict called "the church's deepest identity" - Proclamation (of the word). Celebration (of the sacraments). Charity (caring for the poor, the hungry, those in prison, and those in any need AKA Mission and Ministry). 

Benedict says that these three elements of the "deepest identity" of the church “presuppose each other and are inseparable.”

In other words, if the Church’s charitable works are disconnected from the others - proclaiming God’s word and the sacraments - it becomes disconnected from the whole and takes on another identity.

It remains a "good work," to be sure, one which can be - and, indeed, is often - done by those in the secular arena - but it is not part of the "deepest identity" of the church.

And, and, ..... AND.... if the sacraments are not accompanied by carrying out the mission of the church, it, too, is disconnected. So, too, with the Proclamation of the Word.

Now, I'm not a big fan of "Papa Bennie," and this might not happen again in my lifetime, but I find myself in strong agreement with him on this one.

I'm also in strong agreement with the Mennonites: "Church is an identity, not an activity."

What great company, right? Smack dab between the Mennonites and the Pope.

These two visions of the church are signs and symbols of life and vitality and faith.  Our charitable activity (mission and ministry) flows from who we know ourselves to be ("Jesus is Lord. We are the Body of Christ"), which is shaped by how we pray (celebration of the sacraments).

Proclamation. Celebration. Charity.

Identity. Prayer. Mission.

One without the other just isn't authentic. Not if you call yourself a church.

Whether we know it or not, whether we intend it or not, we reveal more about ourselves than we imagine without ever even opening our mouths.

Whether there's a sign outside our homes or how we just go about our lives, living the best we can, we send powerful messages about our understanding of who we think we are and our vision of who and what we can become.

It's a little like this: You couldn't get more different that the eastern part of Sussex County than the west. It just wouldn't be authentically Lower, Slower Delaware without them both. 

Georgetown. Dover. Wilmington. Three very different cities in three very different counties.

Sussex. Kent. New Castle.

Each one adds to the richness and diversity of the entire "First State".

Church is an identity, not an activity.

That'll preach!  It'll also work. If we let it. 


Sextant said...

Some one gave you slightly wrong information. Sussex County Delaware is 1195 square miles including the water. Two counties in Pennsylvania are larger, Erie at 1558 square miles and Lycoming at 1244. I am not saying that these two counties take the coveted prize, just that they are larger. According to Wikipedia Sussex County is part of the "The Seaford Micropolitan Statistical Area, which is the largest micropolitan area in the United States, includes all of Sussex County."

What exactly a Micropolitan Statistical Area is, I am not sure, but I have a feeling that it is a construct by politicians who want the biggest--apparently in shrimpy Delaware size does matter. BTW, you can return the 12 mile circle to Pennsylvania and give NJ back it's rightful half of the Delaware river. This stuff is amazing:

While you are handing out compliments to "Papa Bennie," you might thank him for giving driving Matthew Fox over to the Anglicans, which may or may not be a good thing depending on your tastes. I certainly found Fox's notions of Original Blessing far more palatable than St Augustine Original Sin.

Fox ran afoul of Benne back when he was the feared Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (I believe it used to be called the Roman Inquisition). Benne gagged Fox for a year, but mouthy Fox continued to poke the hornets next and Benne tossed his butt out on the street:

According to Wikipedia:

"Cardinal Ratzinger ordered the expulsion after Fox refused to respond to a summons to discuss his writings with his superiors in the Roman Catholic Church. Among the issues Fox was asked to defend were that he: called God "Mother";” preferred the concept of Original Blessing over Original Sin; worked too closely with Native American spiritual practices; did not condemn homosexuality; and taught the four paths of creation spirituality—the Via Positiva, Via Negativa, Via Creativa and Via Transformativa instead of the church’s classical three paths of purgation, illumination and union."

None of my affair, I am neither RC or Anglican but I am a bit of a flake and found Fox's brand of theology refreshing.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Sextant - Hmmm...I can't argue with facts and you report the facts. I'm just reporting what I've been told by locals - who obviously have their facts confused. And, I've never heard of the 12-mile circle.

I knew about Papa Bennie and Matthew Fox and I do consider it a benefit. Thank you, Papa Bennie. We've got a wonderful, intelligent, articulate, creative theologian and priest. Your loss, our gain.

Sextant said...

Glad to hear you consider Fox an asset. Thank God for secular western democracies. Benne couldn't burn him at the stake. Which is about where you, Fox and I would have ended up not too terribly long ago, although I can be remarkably fluid in my theology when they start bringing out the oil and kindling.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

LOL Sextant.

Matthew said...

I continue to be amazed at how much phsical places ground and root us, particuarly if you are connected to the land and have been for generations and your faith is enmeshed in that reality. Adrienne Rich, an athiest poet, once wrote about her Jewish background and being rooted there, though not active and a believer. A good friend of mine is a gay ex-Mormon and he only dates Mormon or ex-Mormon men, which I found odd because he's now agnostic, liberal, progressive and everything Mormonism isn't. But he simply wants to be understood without explanation and when he dates another Mormon, that person gets it without having to learn it. He's also from Utah and still close to his family though they differ on church membership and theology. Though he has left the church, he still wears the Mormon underwear --not sure why, maybe its familiar -- and many of his dates with non-Mormons have ended in sneers, disrespect, and cultural insensitivity.

Sextant said...

The biggest determinant of a person's religion is geography, in a big way such Salt Lake City, Jerusalem, Rome, or Mecca, but also in small ways.

My mother was Protestant. What denomination Ma? Protestant. But what kind? Not Catholic.

I was brought up Lutheran because the Lutheran church was 647 feet from our house. Ma didn't like them, Catholics that didn't learn their latin. She may not of liked them but she tolerated because the kids could shooed off to church, Sunday school and catechism without bothering an adult to drive them

My mother's great grand parents and grand parents came over on the boat from Ireland. What do you think the chances that they were Protestant?