Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Rules for Living on the Edge

CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith For the Years of Winter…

I always refer to Bryan Bowers as “the great auto-harpist,” but he’s a lot more. He’s basically a folk singer, with a great voice and a vast repertoire, many songs of which he has written himself, and he plays not only the autoharp, but, like Paul Prestopino, just about anything with strings.

He was at Fortune Lake, about 35 miles from us, last Sunday for the Second Sunday Folk Dance. After Whitewater [Bette and Dean Premo] opened, Bryan did a set, and then Bette and Dean and The Front Parlor Dance Band provided music for dancing.

Bryan beckoned to me while Helen and I took a break during the dancing, and led me to a bench in the back of the room where we could hear the music but still talk.

“My problem,” said Bryan, “is that I live on the edge. And sometimes I go over it.”

“That’s what makes you so good at what you do,” I said. “If you hadn’t gone over the edge of the standard way to play the autoharp, you would not have developed those marvelous new techniques. Occasionally you have to go over the edge.”

Bryan and I are brothers of the edge. I’ve always felt most at home there, too, which is funny, because it’s often a very uncomfortable place to be. But I think I’ve done my best pastoral work, and maybe my best preaching, at times of chaos and tragedy because I was willing to go to people whose lives had taken them over the edge.

So why do Bryan and I worry about going over the edge? Because that’s where the hurt is, too, and it’s possible to hurt people when you go over the edge. I think that the plum-line for edginess is hurt. If going over the edge is going to hurt someone you need to back off. Finding a new way to make music by going over the edge adds to the store of the world’s joy. Setting fire to the hall where the music is played adds to the store of the world’s hurt.

It’s not a new phenomenon, but it’s reached a new screech level in recent times, this business of going over the edge in political speech, and it is hurting, wounding, even killing--a nine year old girl, a federal judge, a US Congresswoman, and many others. Office holders receive threats all the time because politicians and pundits take the speech of vitriol and violence up to the edge, and push others over it, and then try to back away from responsibility.

Speech is an action. It is not “just” speech. Otherwise we would not do it. It’s impossible to divide speech and action neatly. Life is just too complicated for that. Speech has consequences. As has long been established, you do not have the right to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater because of the consequences. Strangely, it is those who spechify most about how people should take responsibility for their own lives and actions who try to avoid responsibility when their over-the-edge speech results in harm to others.

Bryan and I have sometimes made mistakes and hurt people when we have gone over the edge. That is what forgiveness is for. But forgiveness is not possible if you won’t take responsibility.

I think of nine-year-old Christina Green, gun murdered at that political rally in Arizona, a little girl actually born on Sept. 11, 2001. Her parents probably took her to that rally so that she could learn to be a good citizen, part of the political process, perhaps look at Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and get a model of what a girl can do for the world when she grows up. Except she will not grow up.


{I also write the fictional “Periwinkle Chronicles” blog. One needs a rather strange sense of humor to enjoy it, but occasionally it is slightly funny. It is at}

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  1. I think pastors live on the edge more often than not - the edges where two become one, life becomes death, pain becomes solace, etc. And I think humans teeter over the edge without realizing it's there, most of the time. I'm not saying that speechifiers aren't responsible for inciting the movement, just that no one really knows where the edge is, or when they've crossed it.

  2. Yes, the edges are always fuzzy. That is one of the problems with "taking responsibility"--cause and effect are never simple. But it's reasonable to expect that if you throw perfume into the air instead of manure, the place is probably going to smell better.