We Are All Afraid in the #UMC. Great. Can We Move On Yet?

Everywhere I look and read there is some element of fear that is being described. For instance in the conversation around the inclusion of LGBT Christians in the UMC, each side claims the other side is fearful. One side says that the other is fearful of change. Another side says the other is fearful of being out of step with culture. One side says the other is fearful of a slippery slope. Another side says the the other is fearful of embracing the full authority of scripture. Everyone says the other side is afraid.

In some circles you may hear that everyone is afraid and even go a step farther in sharing what they are afraid of. Owning what we are each afraid of is cathartic, but it does not seem to produce much fruit. In fact, talking about fear seems to only amplify the fear that may not even be out there! 

Instead of talking about our fears, can we just take at the starting point that we all are afraid? Can we move the conversation around LGBT inclusion from "what are you afraid" of to something like "what do you value"?

My son is four years old and he says he is afraid of the dark. However, in addition to being afraid of the dark he is also fearful of deep water and caves. At night I can give him a flashlight. I can ensure he stays in the shallow end and in the suburbs it is not difficult to avoid caves. The "thing behind the thing" around my son's fear of the dark, deep water or rocky crevasses is that he values being able to see clearly. Now if you listen to my son talk about what he is afraid of you will miss the underlying value that informs (drives) his behavior. 

Likewise in the Church. When we spend time listening to the fears of another person, this is a pastoral action and it is important. However, if we are only listening to fears we can miss the underlying value that drives those fears. 

The final point I want to elevate when talking about fears is that it is easy to dismiss the other person as not having legitimate fears. When we hear the fears of others and then speak to our own fears we often discount our partners fears as being less important as our fears. Playing the game of who has the most legitimate fear is a relational earthquake that shakes foundations, rupture relationship and crumbles bridges.

Rather than talking about fears, can we talk about values? Can progressives and traditionalists see that our values are aligned? Talking about values shifts the conversation from what arrests our actions to what can we do to live out these shared values? 

We Are All Afraid. Okay. Can We Move On Yet?

Language Monopoly

This is not unique to the UMC, however the church has a number of monopolies on language. I am not saying that the UMC has a monopoly on, say, language about grace or love. I am saying that within the UMC there are groups that have a monopoly on language such that it will cost an outsider something if you use language held by a monopoly.

There are some words that are used by the right and some words that are used by the left and if you are on the right and you use words held by the left monopoly then it will cost you something. And vise versa, leftists use the right's language with an awareness of the cost. Monopolies are effective in using their language to be sure, but what makes them each a monopoly is how the words are loaded. You know you are dabbling in the language held by a monopoly when you want to use it but then have to say what you are not saying. For instance, Progressives shy away from talking about Satan. So when a progressive is desires to use that word, there is often an apology that goes with it, "Satan is alive in the world. And when I say Satan I don't mean a personified being with horns or demons he controls. I mean..." 

For a silly example, at General conference there was a vote to be taken, it was not an important vote (from what I can recall from my notes it was a procedural vote). When these votes came up for action, it was allowed by the rules to use raise placards. Delegates were each given three placards, one red, one green one yellow. These colors were used in previous conferences to signal different action, however the 2016 conference had electronic devices to handle that action. So rather than waiving a yellow placard, you just punched into a computer tablet at the table your ID number and "point of order". The three colored placards were not needed, however this was the tradition and this is what tables had for this vote.

Except one table. 

One table did not have green cards and prior to the vote a gentleman ran to a microphone and signaled to the presiding bishop for attention. When called upon, the man stated that his table did not have green placards for this procedural vote. The Bishop stated that when she calls for a vote using the placards, and color will do. You could even use white paper if you needed to. The man sat down and the Bishop stated that the vote was about to take place and, just to be clear she said to get a placard of any color. To hammer the point across she said, "we will have a rainbow vote."

There was an audible gasp from the observing area where I was seated at the time. 

You may be thinking what was the gasp about? It was because a monopolized word was invoked without the apology/clarification. Calling anything "rainbow" is colored with a particular hue. While the bishop was clarifying the color of the placard does not matter only that you have one to vote, the word "rainbow" fired off all sorts of associations. 

Rev. Mary Spradlin, Rev. Rob Renfro and me. Three people, three different theological perspectives.

Rev. Mary Spradlin, Rev. Rob Renfro and me. Three people, three different theological perspectives.

This is a benign example, however this is not the only example. At one of the more dire moments of the Conference there was an accusation made on the floor that a bishop was signaling to others how to vote by "discreetly" holding up one or two fingers while holding the microphone. This accusation was not founded on anything other than in subcommittee there were people who would accused of signaling delegates how to vote with the same signals. I don't know and heavily doubt if these accusations have any merit to them, but it does serve as an example that even non-verbals can be monopolized by a camp and even if used without intent it can be costly. In this case the left monopolized hand gestures to mean only "this is how you vote." It could not mean anything else.

The General Conference had about a dozen languages being translated in real time. While the Church literally does not speak the same language the Church also metaphorically does not speak the same language. 

Within their monopoly, conservatives have words like: Orthodoxy, Biblical, authority, moral, traditional, schism, under attack, liberty, Good News, the faithful, etc. Liberals have the monopoly on words like: LGBTQ, prophetic, justice, protest, rainbow, love your neighbor, love prevails, reconciling, Orthopraxy, etc. 

The reason this matters is that if we desire to be a church that wants to better understand our neighbor and world, if we want to be a church that is interested to heal where there is division then I believe one of the first things we can do is adopt one another's language in order to break up the language monopolies. Conservatives need to use more unity and reconciliation language, Progressives need to use more victory and salvation language. 

Monopolies are unhealthy for an economy and for the people.

They can kill a church.

How to debate to change the world

There are all sorts of tips and strategies about how to debate. I am not a debate coach, but from what I understand, at the cor, debates are something that is understood as something as you either win or loose. As we conclude the last Republican party debate for 2015, there is chatter about who won and who lost. The underlying assumption is that debates are to be done in a manner that if you "win" you change the minds of others and if you loose you failed to do that. 

Some in the Church feel like religion is a big debate. That is a series of conversations that happen in order to "convert" someone to their team through arguments. I have yet to meet anyone who has ever been persuaded to much of anything  though debates and arguments. And this is an unfortunate byproduct of the original goal of debates - that is to change the world.  

I would like to share with you a secret I learned from very wise clergy mentors on how to debate in order to change the world. It is easy to understand and yet perhaps the most difficult thing to do. I have learned through this practice however that this simple yet difficult act can and has changed people's minds and even the world. 

Here is what you do.

When you are in a debate with someone, stop for just one moment and try to hear what it is the other person values in their argument. Then, affirm that value. 

That is it. If you are able to affirm the value of the other person something happens. 

First, you have to listen, and I mean really listen in order to identify the underlying value. Second, you have to give your conversation partner credit for something that is, in your mind, good and valid. Giving credit to one you are in a debate with is often seen as weakness in a debate as though you are conceding the argument. Third, when you affirm the other person's value you are affirming them as a person of worth and value. You no longer see them as opposition but as equal peer. 

For instance if you are opposed to individuals owning a certain type of gun and you are en ganged in a conversation with someone who owns the exact type of gun you oppose and you wanted to create a change: try first to listen to the underlying value to their reasons for owning such a gun(s). Perhaps it is freedom or safety or a right. Whatever the value is, can you then make a statement that affirms that value. It might sound like, "I think your appreciation for personal freedom is really excellent and I wonder if you would be willing to share more about other ways you desire to safeguard freedom." 

And therein lies the way to debate to change the world. If we are able to listen to another, share in words of grace and affirm the "other" as a person and not an enemy, then the debate model is turned on its head. It no longer is about trying to get another person to come to your side as it is about you growing in empathy and compassion to try to see the world through their eyes.

And with more empathy in the world, the world will change. 

Are we unknowingly offending everyone we meet?

There is a socially predictable pattern that takes place when meeting someone for the first time. You know the script:

"Hello. My name is (insert your name). What is your name?"

"Nice to meet you. What do you do for a living?" 

"Me? I am a (insert job title here)." 

The reason this social script is acceptable is not because it "flows" but because it places the values of the culture front and center - Who you are and what you do are one in the same thing. This may be part of the reason why we quickly forget the names of the people we just met (who they are) but we will remember where they are employed (what they do). 

Our culture emphasises what we do, what we contribute, what we produce, what we make over who we are. We would much rather be a "work-a-holic" than be labeled as a "free-rider". Doing nothing is acceptable on vacation, for a day or two, and the vacation better be short.

When we meet people and quickly ask them what they do, we are perpetuating the value of "work" over "being". Ask someone who is unemployed what they do and many times there is a sense of embarrassment. Many stay at home parents also become uncomfortable responding to this question.

Doing work is not a bad thing, it does not however define who we are. We are first and foremost a beloved child of God, created with all the love and joy and hope and dreams of anyone else ever born. We are beautifully complex, we are full of mystery and wonder and each one of us embodies a story that is ever developing. We have a past and a present, we have a future. We are more than what we do. 

So, the next time you meet someone, I suggest that we begin to impose another set of questions and by extension another set of values. Perhaps questions like:

How do you spend your time?

What brings you joy?

Do you have any hobbies? 

What really interests you? 

What is the most beautiful thing you have seen?