Handling Our Diferences

Someone has said that our greatest strength is diversity, but it is also our greatest weakness. Jesus prays for his followers (John 17:21) to be one, but the Gospel passage (Luke 12:49-53) for this coming Sunday seems to suggest Jesus promotes division. The two passages seem contradictory, and the latter passage doesn’t particularly sound like Jesus. It doesn’t sound like something anyone who loves unity, especially church unity, would say: “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled. But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

Surely, Jesus spoke the words from Luke against the backdrop of the end of the world and the final judgment. He is stating a fact that what we believe about Him is going to put us in different camps. This is a hard word. We struggle with doing everything we can to hang on to unity in our relationships, families, and the world of politics. We very much live in a time of division where unity is hard to find. John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Movement, said these famous words: “In essentials, let there be unity; in non-essentials, let there be freedom; in all things, let there be charity.” The dilemma is discerning the difference between what is essential and what is non-essential.

Some contrast helps! This is a new take on things for me. I would prefer everyone to get along with each other, and keep the fireworks of life at a minimum. Frankly, I’m learning that the Proverbs are right in 27:17 when it says, “Iron sharpens iron.” To distill the truth in complex situations we actually need to go through the wrestling of diverse opinions. This is why debate teams only get better in the challenging crucible of taking different sides on issues and articulating them.

Could this be what we hope for in the church in what we call “holy conferencing”? We confer, converse, look for compromise, or resolution. We try to discern the will of God through debate and discourse. Sometimes we simply have to say, “In Christian love I think that it’s best we move on. Further interaction is going to hurt both of us, and we should not do one another harm by ripping open this same wound over and over again.”

That is a hard place at which to arrive. It seems un-Christian almost, but it may actually promote healing. It’s not a cold shoulder or snub. It is caring enough to confront the other with the truth, and live and let live, apart or together. It cuts down on the perpetuation of acrimony. There are people that I will never ever agree with, but by struggling through the conflict we can actually better affirm our mutual care of one another. It’s the stages of peacemaking that Dr. Scott Peck presents in his seminal work The Different Drum: Community-Making and Peace.

He proposes that the first stage in a relationship is “Pseudo-Community.” It’s the stage where everything and everyone is chummy, hail-fellow-well-met like a honeymoon or a high school reunion – all hugs and no shrugs, but it isn’t real. That’s why it’s called “pseudo.” However, if you allow for honest dialogue and truth-telling, which is necessary for any genuine relationship, then you arrive at “Chaos” where differences are exposed. Most people don’t like chaos, but it’s a mandatory stage in order to get to where we want to go in our dealings with people. So, church people should welcome chaos that at least gets beyond the fakeness of the prior stage. A disclaimer: There are some people who love drama and get stuck not just in the chaos stage, but in any of them or go up and down the continuum at every whipstitch. But, if you plow ahead then you move out of Pseudo-community and Chaos, and get to Emptiness – a live and let live humility as opposed to my-way-or-the-highway, an honest care for one another, but empty of venom and vitriol. This can be a wonderful stage, but if stuck in “emptiness” it leads to a passive sublimation of genuine feelings and people simply shut-down. Emptiness can be apathetic instead of empathetic. Empathy, in spite of differences, leads to the last stage which is Community. Community is marked by transparent love and a prioritization of group health more than individual satisfaction. Community fosters deep communal relationships through individual self-definition.

Where is your family, church, civic club, and national ethos on this scale? Let me give you an example of a healthy sense of community through a story shared by Dr. Len Sweet, a United Methodist clergyperson and professor. He tells the story of when university chaplain Tom Wiles picked him up from the airport in Phoenix, Arizona. They didn’t know each other. Tom was Dr. Sweet’s ride to a conference he was leading. Tom was driving his brand-new Ford pickup. Len Sweet was still mourning the trade-in of his Dodge truck. Though the two guys didn’t really know each other, they immediately bonded as they shared truck stories and laughing at the bumper-sticker truism, “Nothing is more beautiful than a man and his truck.”

Here’s what happened next in Sweet’s own words: “As I climbed into Tom’s truck for the ride back to the airport a day later, I noticed two huge scrapes on the passenger door. ‘What happened?’ I asked. Tom replied sadly, ‘My neighbor’s basketball post fell on the truck.’ ‘You’re kidding! How awful,’ I said. ‘This truck is so new I can still smell it.’ Then Tom said, ‘What’s even worse is my neighbor doesn’t feel responsible for the damage.’ I immediately rose to Tom’s defense and asked him if he had contacted his insurance company, or thought about other ways he could make his neighbor pay up.

Then Tom replied in an unforgettable way: ‘This has been a real spiritual journey for me. After a lot of soul-searching and discussions with my wife about hiring an attorney it came down to a simple thought. I can either be in the right, or I can be in a relationship with my neighbor. Since my neighbor will probably be with me longer than this truck, I decided that I’d rather be in a relationship than be right. Besides trucks are meant to be banged up, so I got mine initiated into the real world a bit earlier than I expected.’”

A better person than me.

GC 2016 and Peacemaking

Maybe you’ve heard the story of the guy who fell overboard into the water. Another guy tried to rescue him, only to grab different arms, legs, whatever and finding each time that a prosthetic appendage came loose. The man in the water kept yelling, “Save me!” In frustration, the would-be rescuer said, “I would, if you would only stick together!” I wonder if that’s an analogy for the United Methodist Church and what God is trying to say to us. It is one of the big questions as we go into General Conference 2016. Will we split? Will we opt for a solution that gives local options on hot-button issues, or will we stick together?

Our connectional identity as a denomination promotes unity over schism. In my mind, that’s the identity of the whole church: one Lord, one faith, one baptism (Ephesians 4:5). Bishop and friend, Tom Bickerton, recently wrote a book that he has shared with General Conference delegates and the whole church, What Are We Fighting For? Its subtitle says a lot: “Coming Together Around What Matters Most.” He uses stories and anecdotes in a winsome way that promotes a win-win outcome for the UMC.

Tom and I might arrive at different positions. I honestly don’t know. One thing I do know is that his question is a good one: what are we fighting for? To some his question is about much more than a peripheral issue. It connects to bedrock non-negotiable tenets of the faith. To others, human sexuality debates are about the nature of God and God’s love for all humankind, and that’s also non-negotiable. These positions beg the question: Can we stick together?

Many people have already given up hope for a peaceful resolution for our church. They’re coming to Portland “loaded for bear.” Many want to collaborate and find ways to move forward as a church. Others are holding fast to their positions because they feel certain that some issues are already decided in God’s mind and theirs, and don’t even want to be civil toward those who differ. Many want to disrupt and hold the conference hostage. I think most of us want the Holy Spirit to envelope the convention center and light the fire of revival that will move us past this extremely personal and heart-wrenching issue.

I am reminded of the late Dr. Scott Peck whose book The Road Less Traveled begins with the line, “Life is difficult.” He was right about that, especially concerning our denominational struggles. His best book, however, is titled, A Different Drum: Community Making and Peace. He says that the first stage in achieving real community is “pseudo-community” where everyone gathers together and glad-hands each other in superficial ways at Christmas, family reunions, or General Conference. There is an air of “How’ve you been?” or “Wow, it’s so good to see you.” He says that this huggy stage can last a short time or forever. I think that the UMC is way past a shallow pseudo-community unless we don’t know which side another person is on. If we don’t know, we sort of “fake it” and smile and steer clear of any conflict. Pseudo-community is the story of much of Christendom’s intra-familial and interpersonal squabbles.

The second stage can last a short or long time, too. Peck appropriately calls it “chaos.” Some groups, denominations, and families stay in chaos. How long has the UMC been in the chaos stage? It’s been a long time, at least since 1972. How much longer can we stand it? There are folks, however, who feel this is one of those subjects that is worth the chaos, no matter how long it takes. To follow Scott Peck’s advice, we must let chaos run its complete painful course or we’ll never appreciate or arrive at the next place on the journey to true community.

The third stage is called “emptiness.” It can also last forever or not. It is a place where persons still have their differing opinions, but they are able to survive the tension because they care more about the other person(s) than they care about the presenting problem or themselves. Many are at that point in the UMC. It is a place of valuing, not demeaning, a place where “sacred worth” is a reality. It is rare to see such “emptiness” around human sexuality debates. Our words sometimes slide over the “sacred worth” language of The Discipline and we accent the “incompatible” part of the sentence. Both sides need to tread carefully and allow a holy emptiness to settle upon us. But we need to move on. Staying in emptiness seems laudable, but it can also be a depression-filled place of inertia.

Of course, the last stage is “community.” Scott Peck doesn’t describe it as a homogenous place where everyone thinks alike. Instead it is a place and space where there are distinctions or diversity of opinion, but there is also a unity. Unity is hard to define because it is seldom seen. We talk about it. We promote it. I’m oft to say, “I believe in the unity of the church,” but what does that really mean or entail. What is that going to look like or make me do? My personal biggest fear is that some who assume they have arrived at “community” have actually slipped back into “pseudo-community.” If there’s no honest dialogue and valuing then it’s a sham which by definition is pseudo.

So, what do you think? We can choose to move up and down, and back again on these stages of community. We can stay in places along the way too long or not long enough. Is there hope to reach emptiness, or are we stuck in chaos? I daresay most of us would prefer to go back to the superficial stage of pseudo-community than accept what’s happening now. But, maybe we can count all this contention and process as a holy gift. We have a real chance to have a significant movement of the Holy Spirit in Portland if we actually try to move through these stages.

You can’t legislate “community.” It has to be experienced. I long for the day when we reach it, and pray we’ll stay there for a real long time!

Community

 

Pray for UMC General Conference

The United Methodist people of South Carolina are asked to pray tomorrow Thursday, February 18, for our 2016 UMC General Conference. General Conference will be held in Portland, Oregon from May 10-20, and decisions will be made about what we hold in common as a connectional people. There’s a word that’s synonymous with “connectional,” and it’s the word “covenantal.” There are many who seem hell-bent, literally, on fracturing our denomination because they want to be connectional without being covenantal. I don’t think you can have one without the other!

We’re not a perfect church, but John Wesley, our founder, said that we should and could go on to perfection in our intentions. God doesn’t save us through Jesus Christ to leave us the way God found us, but to transform us for the transformation of the world. We all have a long way to go, and the only way to make progress is through grace, to be sure, but none of our good intentions means a whit if we don’t make some hard choices about our covenant and what unity means.

Making hard choices is the Lenten message of Jesus’ decisions leading up to Holy Week, and it’s our message as we take up our Lenten disciplines. Hard choices are the very essence of General Conference. We first need to make a choice to bathe it in prayer. I am going to commit this Thursday’s prayer time to a focus on our ability in Portland, and, in every local church of every ilk and creed, to do more than get along with each other, to not only have good intentions, but to do the right thing and make peace.

Making peace is the rub, isn’t it? I can smile and glad-hand almost everyone even if I can’t abide what they think, do, or say. But to make peace – that’s hard, beyond hard. It makes me wonder. In making peace do I have to tolerate and accept that they are okay in their position? I don’t think so! Jesus didn’t make peace with the sins he confronted. He did try to make peace with the sinners though. He even said to Judas when he was about plant the kiss of betrayal on Him, “Friend, do what you came for (Matthew 26:50).” Jesus hardly ever used the word “friend,” only twice, as a matter of fact. If Jesus can call his betrayer a friend, can we dare do less?

What I think is right might differ from what you think is right, but that shouldn’t keep us from expressing Christian love and charity toward one another. John Wesley famously said, “In essentials, let there be unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” The problem is that most of us have opposing lists of non-negotiable essentials, and charity is routinely trumped by angry vitriol.

Can’t we all agree to pray tomorrow for Jesus and his will to reign as we meet for General Conference, and the same to occur in whatever meeting we’re in, even if it’s one in your family’s den? In our discussions, unanimity is less my goal as is selflessness. You see, my understanding of every church fight, whether on a big stage or in a local church, boils down to selfishness – a power play about pecking order and getting what’s best for me, me, me.

Think Downton Abbey and the battle about the village hospital’s control. Cousins, Isobel Crawley and the Dowager Countess Violet Crawley, are on opposite ends of the argument. One might say that their issue is about principle, but there’s a whole lot of “my way or the highway” selfishness at play. In General Church meetings, conference ones, local churches, workplaces, companies, and families, the same story perpetuates itself.

My prayer for General Conference is that we can agree on the primary essential: Jesus Christ. Certainly, every other issue is important and many would say the sexuality debate is essentially about our Christology, but I hope that we can glorify God even in our differences and love each other in such a way that the words of Jesus’ prayer in John 17:23 come true for our denomination: “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

Wow! If we promote unity then the Scripture says that the world will know Jesus and His mission! Please join me in prayer for General Conference tomorrow and all the days leading up to May 10-20, 2016. Let’s try to remember than unity doesn’t necessarily mean unanimity. There’s room in unity for diversity. Our covenant should not ever be broken, but every covenant has clear stipulations about what the parameters are for disagreement. That will be the hard work of General Conference to decide. Most of us who are married already know about this endeavor. Ask any couple who has been married for more than a couple of hours, “Does unity mean unanimity?” Pray! Pray! Pray!

General Conference 2016 Picture

Human Relations DaySSSS!

Sometimes we just don’t get along with one another and we don’t know whether to lash out or just eat our anger. We can glad-hand it away and pretend it didn’t happen by seething inwardly, or we can go ballistic. Is there a middle way that is both truthful and therapeutic? In Charleston, SC there were no riots. A middle way was found because the families of the Emanuel Nine spoke the truth of their hurt, but also modeled grace.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave us profound insight in how to live in this middle place: “We still have a choice today; nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation. This may well be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos and community.” Violent co-annihilation may be tempting when we’re dealing with what appears to be an intractable stalemate. This makes me think of North Korea versus the world; Iran and Saudi Arabia; Democrats and Republicans; and pro-this and con-that people that are on opposite sides of a multitude of subjects. Isn’t Dr. King right? Co-annihilation and evisceration doesn’t help. Chaos-promoting language is an oft-used campaign tool that appeals to many people, but it disregards the fact that rhetoric which foments mutually assured destruction ends up causing it. It’s co-annihilation.

The US government thought they could annihilate native people’s ways by creating boarding schools where tribal ways and languages were beaten out of our people. So-called Christian missionaries tried to destroy native spirituality to create “white people” out of a people who had a deeper understanding of God than they could dare imagine. Isn’t it strange that the church has adapted and accepted pagan customs over the centuries just as long as they came from people whose skin looked the same? Annihilation also came to native peoples through outright murder and ghettoization through events like the Sand Creek and Wounded Knee Massacres, or reservation-induced dependency and abject poverty.

January 17 will be Human Relations Day and is the Sunday nearest Dr. King’s birthday. Its purpose is “…to recognize the right of all God’s children in realizing their potential as human beings in relationship with each other. The purpose of this day is to further the development of better human relations.” This is our day to make up for past failures and to embrace something better than nonviolent coexistence. Peaceful coexistence is better than violence, but love is more than tolerance.

In our unresolved conflicts, whether they are between people, countries, or cultures, we must be both truthful and therapeutic. I think that the genius of Dr. King’s statement about a choice between nonviolent coexistence and violent co-annihilation is not in the either-or choice of toleration or destruction. His statement is most prophetic when he says, “This may well be humankind’s last chance to choose between chaos and community.” Tolerant coexistence isn’t truthful or therapeutic. It puts scabs on wounds that need lancing before any real healing can take place. To choose chaos isn’t really helpful either, though it airs out the truth. The middle way that promotes real healing is what Dr. King called “community.”

How do we work for real community? Thankfully, the United Methodist General Commission on Religion and Race gives us clear tangible guidance. GCORR’s ministry model first promotes the teaching and implementation of Intercultural Competency. Second, it models for us how to have genuine, transparent, uncomfortable, and healing Vital Conversations between persons of disparate cultures and viewpoints. Last, GCORR’s ministry is to foster the creation of lifestyles and operational systems that value Institutional Equity, not just for some, but for everyone. The desire is that all aspects of every society’s structural life is fair to all.

If this ministry model is incorporated into our daily lives then we can have Human Relations Day every day. The questions for me: Will I do my best to learn about people who are different from me? Will I engage in substantive conversations that will promote cross-cultural understanding? Will I do the hard work that ensures that every person has an equal chance to be a reflection of God on earth? I pray that I will do all of this and more. What about you?

MLK