I was fortunate to be able to sit down with the remarkable Lowell Grisham for this fascinating conversation some years back. Even though the interview was published in early January 2005, the issues are timeless. For many, even those who don’t share his faith, Grisham is one of the reasons that Fayetteville is a good place to hang your hat.
Lowell Grisham: Agent for Change
Fayetteville Priest addresses moral issues
If you are the “right” sort of Christian, 2004 may well be your year - this might even be your decade. If you believe that God may not especially approve of civil rights, and that only conservatives have the right to decide what moral questions should be at the forefront of a national debate, you may well be in hog heave.
But if you are on of those Christians who sees life as richly diverse and complex, where do you go? Is there a church where religious and moral discussions are not reduced to the intellectual level of a bumper sticker? In Fayetteville, those of the Episcopal faith may find their questions addressed by Lowell Grisham, rector of St. Paul’s Church, located just off Dickson Street.
In many ways, the Episcopal church is a microcosm of the United States, with congregations often split over social issues. Lowell Grisham himself has never been hesitant to speak his mind on social issues, and addresses them in his various newspaper columns that he writes.
For Lowell Grisham, Fayetteville is much like his boyhood home of Oxford, Mississippi, which translates into a great comfort for him. Previous to his seven years in Fayetteville, Grisham served for several years in Fort Smith.
Sitting down with the soft-spoken Grisham in his book-lined office at the church, one cannot fail to be impressed with the care with which he answers questions. This being an election year in which “moral issues” seemed to motivate many voters, it is only natural to ask if he feels that some moral issues have not been adequately addressed during the election.
“I think the question of this war was never asked in a way that I found at all satisfying before we went to war. Now that we are at war, there seems to be a pretty stifling attempt to quash the questioning why and how the war is being engaged.”
“From a Christian perspective, for instance, this is a war that did not come close to meeting the old, conservative, traditional doctrine of a just war. I think that is a moral issue. And it never got traction.”
Grisham also expressed some misgivings over the fact that so many moral and social issues have been virtually hijacked by right-wing Christians. Indeed, many casual observers may well wonder if the right-wing, evangelical point of view may be the only valid way to address such subjects.
“I’m troubled by that. I would like to rephrase the debate. I consider myself pro-life, and I think one of the central pro-life issues that needs to be at the forefront of debate is the horrible health care system in the United states. By every objective, measurable standard, we are very, very low in the quality and availability of our health care system compared to other developed countries. That seems to be a moral issue too.
“Healing is at the forefront of what Jesus’s ministry was about. I would think that as Christians, we ought to look at how we heal people. What has happened over the past few decades is that such a conservative movement has managed to get what seems total lock on moral issues.
“I think they had a better strategy. The evangelical fundamentalist’s message has always been focused, simple and one-voiced. When you attend an evangelical church, you’re probably attending an event of ‘group think.’ Everybody tends to ‘amen,’ and think alike. There is one theology, and it’s simple enough to be said over and over in sound bites. That’s not the experience of the boarder church tradition.
“That’s bot been the experience for me, of the wonder and mystery of God. God can not be reduced to sound-bites.”
In addressing the notion the Christian message may also have become a simplistic one, he says, “Certainly, and that’s dangerous. In traditional, Biblical language, that is a form of idolatry. Whenever you reduce mystery, or reality itself, you reduce God to something that is objective, holdable, and easy to grasp, controllable, all of those are functions of idolatry.”
So why today, in a world which is becoming increasingly complex, do people have a tendency to want to cling to such beliefs?
“I think all human beings have a hunger for certainty. This quest for certainty has been at the front of the western agenda since Descartes, when he began with his simplistic, I might say, ‘I think, therefore I am.’ He kicked off the quest for certainty in every field. It starts in philosophy and goes into math, with Newton and his certainties into sociological stuff with Locke, and it went into religion as well.
“That is essentially a nonreligious stance, because religion stands in awe and openness [Grisham extends his hands to make this point] in the presence of a name that is beyond understanding. The name of God in our tradition is just not translatable but what it means is that God is utterly and completely free.
“The tetragram for God’s name in English is YHWH, translated as ‘I am.’ Well, maybe it’s ‘I am,’ or ‘I will be what I will be,’ or ‘I am becoming what I am becoming.’ It means that you can’t grasp God, you can’t control God. God is a mystery. When you shrink wrap that, it is idolatry. But is a fearsome thing, to be in the presence of utter mystery.”
His feelings about homosexuality have evolved over the years. In fact, Grisham was an outspoken supporter of Fayetteville’s Human Dignity Resolution, which proposed to protect the job rights of gay city employees. After much heated public debate, the resolution was voted down in a public vote. But just how did this son of the South manage to change his views over the years?
“Well, I grew up in the South, and I just accepted the cultural views of my upbringing, which is what we do. The nice thing about growing up in Oxford is that I lived in a culture that was proved very wrong at something very important. I was in fifth-grade when James Meredith integrated Old Miss, and riots happened. Everybody in my class, and virtually everybody in my state, was certain that segregation was a good thing. They were wrong.
“So it’s nice to grow up in a culture where you have received norms that were questioned early, and were wrong. So it left me with an openness to being able to ask questions about received wisdom. When I was in my 20s, I met someone who I already knew as a human being before I knew he was gay. As a human being, I knew him to be one of the wisest, most mature, most holy, most admirable people I have ever met, and he was something of a hero and a role model.
“And when I learned that he was gay, that was an anomaly. It didn’t fit my perceived conventions..” He pauses and adds, “I think that anomaly is another word for grace. God breaks into our conventions and opens us up to something new.”
His reaction to discovering that his friend was gay? “My jaw dropped. And I turned to him and said,’you’re not?’ and he kind of grinned ear to ear and said, ‘Yeah, I am.’ He gave me the gift of allowing a straight guy from Mississippi to ask him every stupid question a straight guy from Mississippi would ever want to ask a gay guy. With candor, integrity and openness, he answered them.”
But it didn’t stop there. “It sent me on a quest to study some of own beliefs, to study some things about science, that I didn’t know, or hadn’t thought. And gradually, I changed my mind. And since changing my mind, it has changed the way I feel about scripture, and the way I experience reality in such a way that now at this point, it is like, how could I ever have thought otherwise?”
Some observers - both inside and outside the Episcopal Church - have predicted that the church would split itself apart in a violent schism over the gay issue. Indeed, some seem to wish that the church would experience such a schism, so that other churches may be less intrepid when dealing with a basic human rights issue. But does Grisham believe that the Episcopal Church will face a major split?
“Well, yes and no. It will cause some people to leave, but it will cause others to come in. The Christian Church has been doing this for centuries. In the New Testament, we read about the challenge of whether or not non-Jewish people who listened to the story of Jesus, believed and accepted it, could be incorporated into the Christian community. Or whether they would have to be circumcised and become Jewish and follow Jewish law, which is how the early church practiced.
Just as the gay issue has divided many in the church, the ordination of women into the priesthood, now so commonplace, enraged many traditional Episcopalians years ago. But is it possible to bring people back into the fold after they have left over such a divisive issue?
“I sure think so, because I have seen it. I saw in the 60s, in my own parish, where our priest was active in the civil rights movement and lots of people left. Then as they got more comfortable with integration, as society changed, and as people mellowed, many of them came back. The church that I inherited back in Jackson had fully one third of the congregation leave at some time over civil rights issues. They left because the church had established a policy of openness and welcome toward blacks.
“I haven’t seen a church that has been impacted that dramatically by the sexuality question.” Referring to the turbulent civil rights struggles, he says, “There were riots, and there were a lot of people killed, so this seems much milder, and so much more civilized, though nonetheless serious, and stressful.”
Addressing the questions that many Christians have with prayer, he put together a small pamphlet, “Handbook for Prayer,” which he distributes at St. Paul’s. “Prayer has been a particular passion and interest of mine. I think because I had such a hard time praying when I was younger. In Seminary, I read nearly everything I could get my hands on about spirituality and prayer.
“I tried to pray, but without much success. And so I think that part of my passion for writing a booklet about prayer is that I had a long pilgrimage in trying a lot of ways to pray, and being frustrated by that. I remember there was a time when I was on a retreat, and I had brought along two or three books about prayer, and it was almost like I heard a little voice that said, ‘You have read enough about prayer. Put the books down and try.’ And once I did that, it came. It happened.”
But has he reached a total comfort level with his ability to pray?
“There is always some evolution and stretch and dial tweaking when it comes to prayer, but I have found a rule of life, and a way of prayer that is very satisfying to me.”
Some in Fayetteville may only know Lowell Grisham through his support pf what are viewed as “liberal” causes, or his strong views on civil rights.
“One of the things I am proudest of this church is the major ministries of outreach that we have. We have the Community Clinic at St. Francis House, in Springdale. The Community Clinic is the area’s largest medical/dental clinic for folks without medical insurance or access to health care. Recently the clinic became a federal clinic.”
Grisham also cites the church’s work in creating the Seven Hills Homeless Shelter. He speaks about the outreach programs with obvious pride in his voice.
Those seeking simplistic answers may not appreciate Lowell Grisham. But those who seek eloquence and a passionate interest in the important questions facing all Americans may find a pleasant surprise in Fayetteville.
Little Rock Free Press - January, 2005