General Conference 2012 has already produced a ton of verbiage. I have already received letters and phone calls eliciting my support for various issues. General Boards and Agencies of the UMC have started sending out their proposed legislation. I have been personally involved in writing legislation for the Connectional Table and the Worldwide UMC Study Committee, not all of which I agree with. However, I would rather listen to the divergent voices and write good legislation and pray that the GC 2012 Legislative Committees and Plenary Sessions can have clear choices rather than hard-to-hug jello with which to grapple. I want radical change in our denomination and especially want our bishops to express leadership in their annual conferences and local churches because that’s where disciple-making truly happens, but there I go in my verbal haranguing.
Words have to be replaced with listening – sooner rather than later in our position jockeying. In the midst of all the helpful and not so helpful propaganda that will be shot across the bows of our desks and computers, we have to listen to each other and lay aside fruitless personal agendas or theological quagmires that are too often unanswerable. Now, to be sure, I believe some issues are not only answerable using the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, but the answers are essential. They are doctrine! Doctrine doesn’t change. Theology, on the other hand, should always be changing. Doctrine expresses God’s perspective on a subject. Theology is a never-ending contextualization of doctrine revealing God’s mind to a contemporary world. In the midst of conflicting values between the authority of Scripture and love for all people, I admit I would rather side with God than with human reason or experience, admitting that Scripture is both informed by and informs our use of Tradition, Reason, and Experience. I think God’s preference is clear: Love everybody AND be obedient! That takes keen listening!
Herein lies part of the problem. I’m spouting off from my own perspective, and someone else speaks from their context and so the saga goes on ad infinitum. Polarization occurs when all that is going on is talk, talk, talk and no one is listening either to God or each other. The Lord knows we are a people who talk too much. Cell phones, smartphones, texting, and high speed internet are almost universal. Listening isn’t. On my summer’s mission trip to Nicaragua I saw a huge uptick in the use of cell phones even in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere!
In the face of our changing communications reality, I like what Norman Brown said, “The meaning is not in the words, but between the words, in the silence.” How can we watch what we say and keep it to a minimum? The Proverbs speak of letting God put a guard over our mouths. That would help, but how do we do it? Certainly, we can ask God to help us listen attentively to others and not rush into thinking about our reply. We can become reflective listeners clarifying to people what we think they just said and see if we were correct in our assessment. We can pray before we talk.
Mo Udall had a prayer that he prayed before he spoke, “Lord, grant me the wisdom to utter gracious and generous remarks today, for tomorrow I may have to eat them.” Another version that I’ve heard said something to the effect, “Lord, help me keep my words soft and sweet because I never know from day to day which ones I’ll have to eat.” The essence of prayer is to invoke God’s help. We really do need God to help us in our speaking and listening!
In a land where free speech is guarded to the detriment of real communication, I like what Teddy Roosevelt did in 1895 to put a muzzle over an extremist’s words. An anti-Semitic German preacher named Ahlwardt came to New York City to advocate a crusade against Jews. The city’s Jewish leaders went to the police commissioner, Teddy Roosevelt, and demanded that Ahlwardt not be allowed to speak. Roosevelt insisted correctly that the German was entitled to his freedom of speech regardless of his views and even deserved police protection. So Roosevelt personally appointed the man’s security guards: 40 policemen, all of them Jewish! How about that for helping someone watch what they say?
The best way for me to watch what I say is to attempt to emulate Jesus. Everybody wants to be like Jesus, right? Jesus always had the right words for the right time. A mail carrier was talking to a small boy about his little sister, “Can she talk yet?” “No,” the little boy replied. “She has her teeth, but her words haven’t come in yet.” A lot of us have teeth in our conversation, but are the right words there? Is Jesus in our speech?
If you think your answer is, “Yes!” to that question, here’s a challenge: See if you can go 24 hours without a slam at someone, and monitor your conversation for 2 days. Jot down whenever you say something negative about someone who isn’t present. Also note when others say something negative and what your reactions are. Do you go along with them or stop them? It’s time to revive one of my mother’s favorite sayings, “If you can’t say something good about someone, don’t say anything at all.” Then we will be on the right track to holy conversation, holy conferencing, and on our way to a civil and productive God-pleasing General Conference 2012.