At the Brink of GC2012!

Tampa, Here we come! General Conference 2012 is going to be eventful. The means of grace that we call conferencing is something that I look forward to. Will it be holy conferencing?  Yes and no. This isn’t my first rodeo, as the saying goes. As a five-timer I pretty much know what to expect. There will be high moments and low moments: protests, proclamations, wrangling, maneuvering, manipulation, honesty, transparency, duplicity, and the wonderment of first-timers caught in the cross-hairs of our own version of the “Hunger Games.” Quite a few will say, “They call this being the church?” I say give yourself to God first and then to the whole experience: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Don’t get cynical and don’t react too quickly or harshly when you think Satan has showed up. It’s probably just you or me being us.

My Daddy gave me some sage advice when I thought as a teenager that my wild shenanigans were unique in the annals of time. He said, “Son, do you think that your two older brothers never tried that? Do you think I never tried that? Do you think your uncles and your grandfathers never tried that? There ain’t nothing original about original sin!” That was one of my first theology lessons, and a good one. At GC2012 Jesus and the Bad Guy will both show up and will mostly be seen in us. I would guess that’s been the case at every General Conference. We can think we’re doing something earth-shattering and new that’s never been done before in the history of Christendom and, guess what, it’s probably been tried already. Sometimes it’s worked and sometimes it hasn’t. Hey, Dr. Tom Frank already said that the CT/IOT restructuring plan looks exactly like the Evangelical Lutheran one from a couple of years ago. So whether you’re on God’s side or the other side don’t think that what we do in the next two weeks is so important that it can’t be undone in 4 years! Permanency isn’t something to hang your hat on in a church that wants to be a movement more than an institution.

Sure, I take it all very seriously and I believe in miracles. I’m going to Tampa with faith and expectancy. I’m just trying to take a “chill pill”  and blow off some steam before I get there. We all want the Call to Action to work but let me repeat that I am convinced we cannot solve a spiritual problem with a structural solution. I don’t care if it’s the CT/IOT plan, Plan B, MFSA or whatever “new” thing we attempt to come up with in the General Administrative Legislative Committee. Certainly, structure can impede or facilitate making disciples, but in my little corner of the world our deficit in evangelism is not due to bloated agencies or whether or not the pastor has a guaranteed appointment. Our problems are on the personal want-to level. We do what we want to and most around here would rather talk about sports than Jesus.

I guess my point is this to everyone headed to Tampa. Blow off your steam now, rest up, and don’t be shocked if we witness the same-old-same-old. Hey, I’m already a little bumfuddled that all the fancy language and stuff in the slick “Call to Action” booklet that we were sent is hodge-podged in at least 3 different legislative committees. The non-residential set aside bishop is petition #20314 and it’s in Superintendency. By the way, the petition’s rationale is a bit contrary to what I’ve seen recently that says the set-aside bishop is primarily intended to help the Council of Bishops. The petition’s actual rationale says, “A fulltime Council president will give face, voice, leadership and continuity in strengthening and aligning the United Methodist Church’s mission and implementing the Call to Action. It will aid in reconnecting our Church local to worldwide. It will facilitate our work ecumenically as well as in public arenas. This petition …”  Anyway you slice it the rationale for a non-residential COB president sounds a lot more than just sitting on the sidelines and helping the COB – face, voice, aligning the church’s mission, implementing the CTA. Methinks the Book of Disipline (Par. 509.1,2) says that the face and voice of the UMC is General Conference. Just saying.

Then there’s petition #20980 that will be in General Administration. It is the meat of the CTA in terms of restructuring, but the power to allow the 15-member Center and GCSO to run the church is tucked away in petition #20374 and #20375 and they are both in the Conferences Legislative Committee. These two are constitutional amendments that will allow the GC for the first time in our history to delegate its authority to lesser units of the church.  One petition’s title is “Action Between General Conferences” and the title of the other one is called “Action on Funding Between General Conferences.” Yes, indeed, it would be grand to be more “nimble” (Any guesses on how many times we’ll hear this word at GC?) and be able to rearrange structures, agency mandates, or budgets between GC’s, but the last time I checked General Conference is in charge all the time, not just when it’s in session.

Anyway, I’m trying to get it all out of my system now so I can be a part of the coalition of the willing when I hit Tampa. As Jesus said, “Be as shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves.” We’re at the brink. Ready or not, here I come, with both eyes wide open!

Hunger Games, Holy Week, and GC 2012

I went to see “Hunger Games” and was  taken by the message of vicarious suffering.  Twenty-four “Tributes” age 12-18 like Katniss Everdeen represent their districts in penance to the fascist regime of Panem. Katniss exhibited selflessness in volunteering to take her little sister’s place in the horrendous “games” where each boy or girl is asked to fight to the death until one victor is left alive. As much as I was intrigued by the overtones of the movie and impressed enough to purchase and read the series, I was appalled by the violence perpetuated by the Panem government on and by youth. I was most taken by the line said by Donald Sutherland’s “President Snow” dictator character as he was speaking to his aide-to-camp Seneca Crane. It was concerning Crane’s management of the games and his  TV ratings-gaining preferential treatment of Katniss. President Snow said, “Hope is the only thing more powerful than fear.” Crane is eventually killed because he is accused of fomenting hope over the regime’s fear.

This got me to thinking about Holy Week. Perhaps the reason the Palm Sunday crowds turned fickle is that they were cowed by fear and not inspired by hope. The Roman Empire’s manipulation of outcomes is clearly evident in both Holy Week and in “The Hunger Games.” The name of the country in “The Hunger Games” is a take-off of the Roman Empire’s phrase panem et circenses, or “bread and circuses/games.” It was a plan and method that the Roman Empire used to control the populace through a diversionary false reality. Yelling at blood sports kept people from forcefully dealing with the real issues of corruption, oppression, and despair. Panem in “The Hunger Games” does the same thing through their TV-streamed crowd control of televised teen murder. Panem and the Roman Empire are essentially synonymous. What takes them both down is hope.

Christian hope is the fuel for revolution in both the spiritual and political realm. If we believe in the Resurrection all fear is gone, as the old hymn puts it. Without fear and filled with hope we are more than undefeated. We are victors! But our weapons of revolution are not of this world. We will not use Katniss’ bow and arrows. Earthly weapons are of no value in fighting evil regimes or ideologies. Remember what Jesus said to Peter in the garden of Gethsemane as he swung his sword at a soldier, cutting off his ear: “Put your sword away, Peter. Those who live by the sword die by the sword.” Jesus promoted the power of love over the love of power and earthly weapons.

A devotional writer that I’m reading said it better than I: “The weapons of our warfare are not destructive, they are constructive. They include things like humility, forgiveness, resisting evil with good, holy attitudes, the Holy Spirit within us, and the even more offensive ones – the Cross of Christ, the Word of God, and the prayers of the saints. Jesus won this showdown in the garden of Gethsemane. No one really knew that but Jesus. His victory didn’t look like a victory. Neither do ours. When we turn the other cheek, offer to go the extra mile, forgive someone a thousand times, humble ourselves in the sight of humanity and  God, pray on our knees, and quote from the Word, it doesn’t look as if we win. But we do. The enemy trembles. He would much prefer that we go back to his style of battle – evil for evil, sword for sword, spite for spite. Satan knows how to fight on those terms. He has no idea what to do when his greatest offenses become the showcase for God’s greatest mercies.”

As I think about “The Hunger Games,” Holy Week, and even the upcoming General Conference of the United Methodist Church I want to claim hope over fear so that I remain constant in faithfulness to Christ. I cannot use Panem’s weapons or diversions. I need to yield to the Holy Spirit and Christian Hope. Hope overcomes fear in Panem and against the rhetoric of crisis that is rampant in our church. This Holy Week, just three weeks before we are about to be subjected to the smoke and mirrors via panem et circenses at General Conference 2012, we need to pledge to avoid worldly weapons, parliamentary end-arounds, spiritual manipulation, and coercion. Jesus’ hope is positive, vulnerable, and relies on God rather than political machinations.

The observations and questions asked by the devotion are so helpful to me right now: “How do you fight the good fight? Are your battles a reflection of the Spirit of God within you? Or are they consistent with the spirit of this world? One will lead you to victory, the other into darkness. You will encounter a battle today, as you do every day. How will you respond? Make sure you look a lot like Jesus in the garden.” These are the questions that I will ask myself as we head to Tampa for GC 2012. Keep hope alive! Hope wins!

Lent, Call to Action, and the Truth

I just got back from a Connectional Table meeting and felt like I was subjected to subtle and not-so-subtle encouragement to support the IOT/CT legislation carte blanche. Well I have hardly ever been accused of checking my brain at the door. I did get up and profess that I would rather be a part of the coalition of the willing than a resister but feel the responsibility to ask pertinent questions about the IOT/CT plan that must be answered. I still have those questions about putting so much power and assets in the hands of a 15-member Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry and a 45-member group that meets once a year. The questions are huge. I feel compelled to keep asking questions and pray for truth. I know that everybody in this debate has their own perspective, but I hope we will all ponder the common issues of UM indentity, theology, and inclusivity. All of us have to avoid spin which to me is negative and often just half-truths. I read the Wisconsin Annual Conference’s statement on the Call to Action and really resonate with it. Here’s the link to some good truth-telling and questions:

http://www.umc.org/atf/cf/%7Bdb6a45e4-c446-4248-82c8-e131b6424741%7D/WISCONSIN%20DELEGATION%20STATEMENT.PDF?tr=y&auid=10420414

Speaking of truth, the great novelist Flannery O’Connor, known for surprise endings and plot twists that can turn a reader upside down, wrote these matter-of-fact words, “You shall know and do the truth . . . and the truth will make you odd.”  It may cause us to feel odd in today’s world when we live truthfully. I know that I don’t have a corner on the truth market. I also know how odd I can be, but I’m trying to be ethical. Ethics as defined by the dictionary is “the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation.” I’m glad the definition started with the word, “discipline.”  Doing the right thing, believing the truth and living truthfully, takes extraordinary discipline.

For example, 20,000 middle-and high-schoolers were surveyed by the Josephson Institute of Ethics–a non-profit organization in Marina del Rey, California, devoted to character education.  Ninety-two percent of the teenagers admitted having lied to their parents in the previous year, and 73 percent characterized themselves as “serial liars,” meaning they told lies weekly.  Despite these admissions, 91 percent of all respondents said they were “satisfied with my own ethics and character.” That’s a scary thing–when we knowingly misrepresent the truth and we are “satisfied with my own ethics and character.” Living truthfully may make you odd in today’s world.

Lenten season dares us to “fess up” to our shortcomings and that takes truth telling. Most of us would rather talk about what’s wrong with everybody else but ourselves. We have the Cleopatra Syndrome, so called because she was the Queen of DENIAL. Jesus came to expose the denying lies of those who felt smug in their self-righteousness and to bring relief to those who felt imprisoned by their unrighteousness. He told it like it was about both groups. He wanted both groups to come clean, tell the truth and experience the freedom that can only come from having no secrets from God.

With the woman at the well Jesus dodged her non-answers and went straight to the jugular about her many marriages and live-in lover. It was her honesty that finally opened her eyes to both Jesus and her own salvation. But she had to tell the truth to get there! Honesty is the best policy, especially honesty with God! He already knows what we’re thinking anyway, so why don’t we turn those ugly worrisome thoughts into prayers?

Only God is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient, but out of love God gives us tremendous freedom and latitude. We can choose or not choose to turn to God in repentance and ask for help in our daily predicaments. If we don’t turn to God aren’t we neglecting the best opportunity for real help when the going gets rough? Next time you find yourself in a situation and are already planning your exit strategy with not-so-truthful ease, turn to God instead. Jesus is more than ready and able to help you. All Jesus asks is for us to be honest. Without honesty, we’re stuck in a downward spiral toward disaster. I pray that as we prepare for GC 2012 we will speak the truth in love!

If God Had a Refrigerator

I am currently at the Pre-General Conference 2012 News Briefing in Tampa, Florida. To hear the myriad voices of our denomination is an arduous task but an exciting one. We are one of the most diverse faith groups on the planet. This is a strength, not a liability. It has been great to catch up with old friends and make new ones. We’re in this process of holy conferencing together as we prepare for “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” that we call General Conference. There are and will be disagreements but I pray that we will not be disagreeable. After all, we have a lot more in common than we dare admit.

For instance, studies of human DNA suggest that we have common origins. Some say we all came from an “Eve” source in Africa that migrated some 10,000 fold into Europe’s hinterlands and intermarried with other hominid life forms. Others say that we have a common ancestor of unknown origin but share Neanderthal attributes. Either way, the similarity in our DNA doesn’t diminish our individual uniqueness.

God loves diversity. Look at the myriad colors of birds, the duck-billed platypus, and the multitude of human personality and biological differences for evidence. An old Russian proverb says it well, “If I try to be like someone else, who will be like me?” We need to treasure our uniqueness, even those aspects of uniqueness that don’t always fit in. I saw this illustrated in a cartoon that showed the foreman of a jury at the door of the jury room giving the lunch order to the bailiff. You know the jury is in for a long time when you hear the order: “Eleven cheeseburgers and one hot dog. Eleven coffees and one hot chocolate. Eleven fruit pies and one bagel.” As much as we share in common, we all have different tastes.

A waitress was taking orders from a couple and their young son. She was one of the class of veteran waitresses who never show outright disrespect to their customers, but who frequently make it quite evident by their level stare that they fear no mortal, not even parents. She jotted on her order pad deliberately and silently as the father and mother gave their selections, down to what was to be substituted for what and which dressing changed to what sauce. When she finally turned to the boy, he began his order with a kind of fearful desperation.

“I want a hot dog…” he started to say. And both parents barked at once. “No hot dog!” Then the mother continued, “Bring him the lyonnaise potatoes and the beef, both vegetables, and a hard roll and…” The waitress wasn’t even listening to the mother. She said directly to the youngster, “What do you want on your hot dog?” He flashed an amazed smile. “Ketchup, lots of ketchup, and – and bring a glass of milk.”

“Coming up,” she said as she turned from the table, leaving behind her the stunned silence of utter parental dismay. The boy watched her go before he turned to his father and mother with astonished elation to say, “You know what? She thinks I’m real! She thinks I’m real!”

God feels the same way about each of us. None of us are overlooked or ignored. Each one of us is that special and unique to God. What a comfort to know that we are real to God! That is an epiphany that you might need to hear today. If God had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it. You’re special!

The United Methodist Church – God’s Music Box

Epiphany season is the sacred season of miracles, the extension of grace beyond the confines of Judaism, and the celebration of God’s presence among all peoples. When we say that someone has had an epiphany we know that it means that they have had an “Aha!” moment. When was your latest epiphany? For a lot of us epiphanies have been few or non-existent in the year 2011 and we can’t wait to turn the page on a rough year.

Generalized fear and malaise has created what friend Dr. Tom Frank calls a “rhetoric of crisis” in our denomination. Sadly, this kind of panic is crossing all cultures, faiths, and political persuasions. Just this afternoon, no doubt to capitalize on the Mayan 2012 “End-of-the-World” predictions, the movie “Deep Impact” came on TV. At least there was some good theology with a spaceship named “Messiah” and people chosen to stay for 2 years underground in the “Ark.”

Unfortunately, fear mongering and empty promises are daily fare for folks in the church and culture. Just have a listen to political candidates. Who wins in the Iowa Caucus will probably be the one who panics people the most and at the same time offers the best panacea. Cough syrup for someone dying of lung cancer doesn’t get it done. The medicine has to match the malady, and that’s the problem with crying “Wolf!” without credibility and/or a proper solution.

With General Conference looming there are lots of people doing the “Iowa Thing,” as I’ll call it, in the church – bemoaning the future of the United Methodist Church while offering answers we already know are only half-measures. Removing “continued availability of appointment” AKA “Guaranteed Appointment” from the Book of Discipline may seem like an answer for underperforming clergy and the churches that have suffered through them, but what about how that changes our theology of prophetic proclamation. There surely need to be easier and quicker exit strategies for people whose gifts and graces are wanting or waning. However, I’m reminded of Edwin Friedman’s seminal work, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.

The title says it all, doesn’t it? Quick fixes demand later fixes to correct unintended consequences.  I am not one to want to do the usual thing and set up another study committee to report to the next General Conference, but can’t we at least put theology before the financial cart concerning some issues? In the IOT/CT restructuring legislation, for instance, the qualifications of the 15-member Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry that will control the work of all the agencies of the UMC and nearly $2 Billion in assets says nothing at all about years of service to the church or theological background – only a litany of business skill sets.

Others whom I greatly respect have predicted a “death tsunami” that will exacerbate our rapid decline in church membership. Out of fear and/or faithfulness there are well-meaning people in the UMC who have called for such radical changes in the ways that we do ministry via itinerancy, connectional ministries, and ordination that our theological identity could be  muddied beyond recognition. This might be a good thing though.

We’re used to things being muddy in our Via Media (“Middle Way”) conjunctive faith history a la Dr. James Fowler and his Stages of Faith. So why not put ordination first and full conference membership last as the legislation asks? It will help our relationships with other Christian bodies, so it’s said. Ah! But there’s the rub: We’ve already failed at that since we can’t produce any proof of apostolic succession in UM ordinations anyway!

We were meant to be a movement not a domesticated legitimized institution, but I’ll keep listening, learning, and hoping that I’ll soon have an epiphany at the Pre-General Conference News Briefing in Tampa. I need more information. My mind isn’t made up on so many things. Do I panic or reach out to new possibilities with hope? I’m being pulled to and fro by the dissonant tunes of those who cannot separate doctrine from theology, the essential from the non-essential.

I can’t help but think of Friedrich Nietzsche, great doubter of the 19th century. He once wrote a letter to a friend disparaging dull and dead Christians: “If these Christians want me to believe in their god, they’ll have to sing better songs, they’ll have to look more like people who have been saved, and they’ll have to wear on their faces the joy of the beatitudes. I could only believe in a god who dances.”

What Nietzsche and maybe even more United Methodists have failed to realize is that God likes to dance. Better than that, Epiphany season is a reminder to those of us who are dull of mind and feet that God wishes to dance with us, especially as the discordant sounds of church squabbles rise! This is mostly metaphorical, to be sure, but the sheer truth is that God wants to dance a jig with us as partners, confused though we are. The key is that God has to lead so the cacophony turns into a symphony!

I sure can’t lead when it comes to music. I’ve never been very talented musically. Music enthralls me. It helps me worship. It inspires adoration. The problem is that I can hardly carry a tune. When I was preaching on TV for the 9 years prior to becoming a District Superintendent the folks in the video booth learned to turn off my microphone if there was any way my singing could be heard. I love to sing, loudly and with feeling, and it sounds fine to me, but others say it’s more like a joyful noise. Maybe more like a joyful train wreck, with wheels screeching.

The closest that I’ve been to good music is listening to good choirs, contemporary Christian musicians and bands, “Celtic Woman” on PBS, and the occasional live concert. As I was growing up we had an old Polyphon, a German music box that played large 19 inch diameter metal discs. You might say that it was the precursor to the record player or the juke box since it had a slot for a large cent on both sides of the wooden case. We would put on our favorite disc (mine was entitled, “The March of the Cameron Men”), and let the big sound of the music box fill the house.  It was marvelous.

As we approach a New Year, Epiphany season, and General Conference, I think God wants us to fill our lives just like the sound of that music box filled our house. God wants each of us to carry the sound of God’s love song to the world. That marvel would surpass any off-beat notes and screeches that you or I can make and whatever comes of what happens at General Conference. That sound will be music to the ears of a world that thinks we’re irrelevant. Don’t we believe that the church is of God and will endure to the end of the age? It might end up with a different name than the one we’re used to or have myriad theologies yet timeless doctrines. No matter what, this Epiphany season I want God’s music to flow from me, into me, and beyond me to the entire world so that “Aha!” moments might abound to the glory of God – dissonance turned to harmony.

I don’t want to let embarrassment or confusion stop me from dancing. I, therefore, need to get over my fearful “rhetoric of crisis” driven music-aversion and timidity, and just let it rip! There’s a heartbreaking scene in the film “Shall We Dance?” where a dance instructor working with a beginning student berates him in front of the class: “Stop. Control yourself. Stop slobbering like that. Your hands are dripping wet. You’re making me sick. There’s no way you’re becoming my partner.” The man is humiliated but courage rises enough so that he looks up to speak: “Do I really make you sick? Am I really that disgusting? Do I really look that bad?”

How would you feel if your dance instructor/partner looked at you with disgust? It might make you want to give it all up, but here’s the good news of Jesus’ Epiphany for us in 2012: God delights in dancing and singing with us, regardless of either our great skills or pronounced inabilities. The joy in the exercise isn’t in the precision of our steps or voices. It’s not in the exhilaration of being swept away by the moves or the music. The joy of the dance is in the delight of our partner’s eyes and our Partner is God. Epiphany season is a chance for you to sense the smiling eyes of God on your life. “Join in the tune. Dance with me,” says our God! Is this a positive way to envision what seems herky-jerky in our attempt to dance with God and each other in “Holy Conferencing” at General Conference? I pray so!

Polyphon Music Box

Women Clergy and “Stained Glass Ceiling”

I have been traveling for the last 3 months to all the churches in the Columbia district presiding over charge conferences. Unfortunately, even in this day and age, I continue to hear gender bias and the dreaded phrase, “Some of our people won’t accept a woman as their pastor.” The church has long caused clergywomen to hit the “stained glass ceiling” of serving smaller parishes with lower salaries. As a justice issue, we should all agree that equal work should result in equal pay. I have two children who are Elders in the United Methodist Church, one daughter and one son. Narcie and Josh are both unique and are great! Of course, I’m prejudiced, but let me tell you as objectively as I can that both are better preachers and leaders, pastors and teachers than a lot of the clergy that I know. My daughter should not get short shrift because of her gender! She is excellent and she’s working harder than most male clergy AND she has the prolonged anxiety of a brain tumor on top of everything else. When people talk about women clergy in a disparaging way I want to say, “Give me a break!”

The church hasn’t always been this way about women’s leadership in Chirstianity. In the early church, women earned positions of prominence. During Jesus’ life it was primarily the largesse of working or wealthy women that provided the support that Jesus and the disciples needed (Matthew 27:55-56; Luke 8:2-3). Women were the first to hear the news of the resurrection. Women were there at the prayer session in the Upper Room that led to the birth of the church at Pentecost. Phoebe was a Deacon in the church at Cenchrea that Paul greeted in Romans 16:1 and the four daughters of Philip the Evangelist prophesied/preached (Acts 21:8). And where would the church be without Mary, the mother of Christ? Paul sums up the equality of Christian community in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” It was also Paul who reminded St. Timothy of the source of his faith, “which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice,” and, how “from infancy you have known the holy scriptures (2 Timothy 1:5; 3:15).”

Therefore, if women were so indispensable at the beginning of the church, how can we imagine women being left out today? Unfortunately, the early church acceptance of women dissipated all too rapidly into an enculturated male-dominated entity. We have sadly experienced 2000 years of allowing the secular world shape the sacred. This is all the more reason to celebrate, rather than disparage the influence of women in the church. If it weren’t for the faith of my mother, grandmother, wonderful female Sunday School teachers and mentors (I never had a male teacher in grade school or at church), my faith would have either been nonexistent or desperately inadequate. Women are the core-supporters of many churches. United Methodist Women are invaluable as leaders in ministry and mission. I thank God for what they do in the Columbia District, the Annual Conference, and General church!

We need more women leaders (men, too, for that matter). Thank goodness the United Methodist Church has long supported the call of women into ordained ministry. Still, however, clergywomen are a minority and there are those who wish to keep it that way. Here’s my response to churches that don’t want a female pastor, “Get over it!”

Gender issues and discrimination should be a dead issue in every profession. We have made great strides, but there is room for growth. In 1888 there were only 5 laywomen and no clergywomen at the United Methodist General Conference. After approximately 90 years of almost no representation, in 1976 there were 10 clergywomen and 290 laywomen out of 1000 delegates at General Conference. In 1992, it was 81 clergywomen and 303 laywomen out of 1000. In 1996, it was 107 and 328 respectively. In 2000 the numbers were 112 clergywomen and 212 laywomen. In 2008, of the 996 delegates, 148 were clergywomen and 220 were laywomen. Forty percent of the total delegates were female.

The church certainly has more than 40% women despite the number of those elected. It seems that the gospel hasn’t caught up with us yet in the church. The secular world has laws and changing attitudes in its favor, but we have something even greater – God’s Spirit! The Church should be the leader, as it was in the beginning, in women’s rights!

General Conference 2012 Rhetoric and Listening

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.