The last few months I have heard over and over again the lament about how difficult it is in the current cultural climate to get along with people who disagree with you. The minute you express an opinion you are labeled as an us or a them and the conversation is over. That drives me nuts. I just want to be friends and talk about movies and football and occasionally Jesus.
Even those things are controversial any more. We seem to live in an age when the lines that divide us are being drawn in ever bolder ways and nobody seems to have a way to begin erasing some of them. This makes me sad and crazy worried for our future.
Then came Tom Hanks to Saturday Night Live this weekend. I never watch SNL or take it very seriously. It isn’t just because of the crass nature of the show but lately the skits have just been sloppy with dumb punchlines and lousy writing. But SNL is still a fairly solid institution that digs deep once in awhile to deliver something true and beautiful. They did so during 2008’s presidential election. They delivered again in 2012 when a children’s choir began their Christmas episode by singing “Silent Night” in honor of the victims of Sandy Hook Elementary. Last night they did so again, albeit with a great assist for Tom Hanks.
The opening debate spoof was humorous enough but after the beginning credits Tom Hanks donned an overcoat and sat down to give Americans some great “Dad” advice for moving forward. “Your complexion is getting darker but don’t let it bother you.” “Do you really need so many guns?” and the like.
But the epic brilliance came when Tom Hanks crashed a “Black Jeopardy” skit as a back woods cowboy sporting a patriotic T-shirt and a Trump hat. The host, played brilliantly by Keenan Thompson asked three contestants a variety of questions that poked fun at inner city black culture. Surprisingly, Hanks’ Trump supporter answered every question perfectly but he was speaking about his own rural culture. Thompson’s host and the two other contestants were shocked as they began to bond with him. At one point Thompson and Hanks exchanged an extremely awkward hand shake. The moral was that despite the idiotic labels and stereotypes, inner city blacks have much in common with rural whites.
For thee years I lived and ministered in Kansas City’s inner city and then moved and spent 3 years in rural Oregon. So I could relate to the skit in profound ways. The cultures of rural Oregon and inner Kansas City were almost identical, even if the skin colors were different. I felt completely at home in both places and it wasn’t until I moved to suburban Salt Lake City that I now feel completely out of place.
More than that, I loved the awkwardness of the Keenan Thompson’s host. He acted the character with a complete unease and visible cautiousness as he tried to tip toe around the white guy. There was this uncertainty about just how this Trump supporter was going to mix with the others. When the white guy answered the questions perfectly, Keenan was noticeably shocked and thrilled each time.
Something in Thompson’s performance resonated with me on a deep level. As a pastor, I cannot find a better image for my vocation in this awkward, divisive world. Every Sunday morning I am the awkward and cautious host. I get up to face a group of people from drastically different backgrounds. I have liberals and conservatives and hispanics and whites and wealthy and homeless in my congregation and when they all get together I am visibly terrified about how this is all going to go. Like Thompson’s host, I tiptoe around things while trying to urge them into deeper conversation.
Most of the time it goes extremely well. Like Thompson’s host I find myself smiling and nodding and saying, “yeah, yeah, that’s right man! Yeah, good job! I’m proud of you!” and then attempting the awkward handshake.
What I loved the most about Thompson’s performance was though he was terrified he kept the game going. There was a quiet courageousness in his character that I loved. He kept stepping up to the plate and ended the skit with an excellent punch line, “After commercial break we are going to play the national anthem and just see what happens!”
That is me every Sunday morning. After our opening song I stand up and face that room of highly diverse people and say, “Good morning. Let’s sing some songs and pray a bit and talk about the Bible and see what happens!” And then I pray hell doesn’t open up and swallow us whole.
It hasn’t happened yet as we continue to dig deeper into God and into each other and realize that we have much in common and our dumb labels are just that, DUMB.