Today, as I was sitting on my back patio having lunch, I looked up at the dying live oak tree near the fence. The tree is in sad shape, as far as trees go. A few years ago, not long after we moved into the house, we noticed that it seems to have started dying from the top. We are not sure if lightning hit it or some plague of insects, bacteria, genetic malfunction, or simple old age got to it. But the ends of the thick trunks are now splintered. The woodpeckers and flickers have gouged holes in those trunks as they hunt for protein while dropping a shower of shavings to float in the bird bath below. The lower branches have gradually died, ending up as lichen-covered sticks which fall on our back lawn as gifts for the dog to chew. But the middle branches of the tree have endured somehow, and what I noticed today was that they are now covered in blossoms.
They called to mind the oak blossoms which covered our live oak trees every spring when I was growing up in Northern California. Our yard had four large, strong, healthy trees: two live oaks and two deciduous oaks of some indeterminate variety. Each year, small strands of green started to form on the trees, then fell to the ground as they turned brown. The strands had small nobs on them, not much bigger than cracker crumbs, strung like tiny nuggets along a thread, and their color was no different than the stems. My parents kept calling them blossoms. That was absurd to me. I knew what blossoms were. The lilies in our yard would explode with vibrant reds, yellows, oranges, and whites; the camelias would open their soft, round, pink blooms; the irises would stand tall with their bearded heads of purple; the roses would open their poetry-inspiring buds, and wherever those marvels didn’t show off, there was room for daffodils and tulips and pansies and petunias to fill in. Those plants all had blossoms to be proud of. But the mighty oaks, many times bigger in stature and deeper in root than any of those others, only produced those spindly, weak, little threads of green-drying-to-brown crumbs. I still imagine the other plants and bushes in the yard were laughing at the mighty oak trees when blooming season arrived.
And now, around here, I hesitate to imagine what the magnolias say when the oaks aren’t listening. But still, sitting on my back patio enjoying my lunch, I realized that the blooms lend a beauty and a grace to still living, yet dying, oak tree. They are plentiful enough to make a visual impact, and from the distance across the width of my yard, they rustle like curtains in the breeze. While the color isn’t spectacular, the gold-glowing green freshens up the place a bit while we wait for the trees, bushes, and plants to fill out with their new leaves.
I’ve been thinking a lot today, too, about the “Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act” which is making its way through the Georgia State Legislature this season. They had to call it the Georgia act because it’s not just the Georgia Legislature considering the bill; variants of this same bill are making their way through a number of state legislatures this year. The need for this bill, as well as the language of the bill, was conceived by a national organization called the Faith and Freedom Coalition. Supporters of the bill have come forward with all manner of dramatic language to say that the bill is necessary to protect religious people, who, they allege, are under serious threat of persecution throughout the nation. Some politicians have been more clear: they are promoting the bill so that private businesses would have legal grounds to refuse to serve people who are LGBTQ.
There are so many thoughts in my mind about this bill and the agenda of those promoting it. I have my gut reactions: I am repulsed that we are having a serious conversation about how to codify bigotry, and I am scandalized that some think religion is a useful tool to do that. Stepping back from those reactions, though, I also wonder why a business would want to refuse any paying customer (for a great story about that from Idaho, see here); I am afraid that is one of those questions to which I do not really want to hear the answer. I think about a colleague of mine in Texas, who recently wrote that their version of the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” would nullify a 15-year-old act that was crafted after a broad process involving a wide range of political and religious leaders. That makes me wonder why our state needs organizers from a national organization representing a narrow segment of the population, which is far from representative of the range of religious perspectives in our state, to set our legislative priorities and to write our legislation for us. I wonder if there is any way for the cooler heads of more seasoned politicians to prevail in our legislature and governor’s administration, where the conversation is dominated by the voices of radically conservative Republicans. And I think about my favorite line from one pastor’s testimony against the bill: “is there a more religiously free people on God’s green earth than Georgia Baptists?”
But I also think about my live oak tree and its blossoms. I am the pastor of a congregation which I like to describe as radically tolerant. We have some members who align on many issues with the political right, and some members who align on many issues with the political left. We have members and friends in our congregation who are gay and lesbian, and we have members who do not support extending marriage, ordination, or other civil and ecclesiastical privileges to people who are LGBTQ. But we manage to get along most of the time, and more than getting along, we manage to exercise our religious freedoms together. We pray with and for each other, we visit each other in the hospital, and we bring casseroles when we think someone might need them. We break bread together, both in the context of worship and in some really great covered dish lunches. And we serve our community together: we provide food and housing for homeless people, we tutor children from our local public school, we mentor Boy Scouts, we build ramps for people under Hospice care, and we welcome a whole bunch of different community groups to use our buildings.
Such a tolerant community of people committed to a common ministry and mission seem like my live oak trees. When I was growing up, such communities were strong and healthy; now, they seem like they are dying because folks seem to prefer to live in enclaves of people who agree with them on controversial issues. In fact, I have heard supporters of LGBTQ rights talk about their support for bills like the Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Their reasoning goes that they want to be able to easily identify those businesses who do not agree with them so they can stay away. But if we all retreat into our own enclaves of like-mindedness, when do people who disagree encounter each other? When does a traditional-marriage bakery owner witness the love-struck excitement of the gay couple who is ordering the cake for their wedding? When does the progressive activist find out that the local dry cleaner with the faded Romney-Ryan sticker on his bumper proudly displays in his shop the photos and certificates of appreciation from years and years of sponsorships of the youth soccer league?
In this metaphor, the vocal activists like the Faith and Freedom Coalition might be compared to the plants and bushes that produce the bold, brassy lilies, irises, camelias, roses, and all the rest. They quote Sarah Palin on the front page of their website, and you can’t get much more bold and brassy than that. I can imagine them, perhaps unfairly, mocking institutions like my congregation, large, old trees with our tiny, plain blossoms of church suppers and after-school tutoring programs. Our blooms do not command as much attention; they have less splashy color, less noticeable shapes; they are less outspoken, less dramatic, and get far less attention from the politicians or the media.
But our blossoming acts of religious freedom have their own beauty and grace. They may seem small and spindly, but taken together, they have a significant impact. And they freshen up the place where we are, filling in when the splashier, more dramatic plants and bushes fail. Life in a community of radical tolerance is not always easy; some days, I worry that the whole thing is going to fall over dead, becoming nothing more than fodder for the woodpeckers. But on other days, I notice that even when the breeze starts to blow and our blossoms rustle, they look like a curtain dancing with the wind, and I think such places where religious freedom is enacted are the only hope our culture has.
I hope our representatives will have the good sense to vote no on the Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Update: So this happened later on Thursday. Once an anti-discrimination amendment to the bill passed, the supporters no longer supported it.