Off Target

Two passing conversations yesterday stuck with me.  I got a call from a former colleague and current retired bishop who asked if I were planning to go to General Conference.  I responded that it would be up to the conference whether I get elected or not.  His reply to me was, “It would shake up a lot of people if you go.”  I asked what he meant, and he said, “well, you know, you like to make people sweat — you go after people, you attack our sacred cows.”  I lay awake last night thinking about this exchange.  Is this how I am perceived?  On the attack?  Out for blood?  Just being critical for criticism’s sake?  God, I hope not.  That isn’t my point at all.  I don’t “attack” things I don’t like or disagree with — I try to apply critical thinking to things I don’t believe are accurate, helpful, or effective.  I try to challenge the status quo and ask, “Isn’t there a better way to do this?”  I generally back up my suggestions with fairly sound research and information.  I attempt to bring a historical and/or systems perspective to issues that are being over-simplified.  I know I get under some people’s skin, but that is not my intention, nor my motivation.  I simply love my church and believe it has an enormous potential that it consistently fails to live up to.

The second conversation was with a pastor who hasn’t attended conference for a couple of years, but who registered this year.  I chided him, “What’s the sudden interest?”  He immediately responded, “It’s election year.  I need to protect my interests and make sure “the right people” (quotes mine) go to General and Jurisdictional Conference.  The right people.  The right people?  Does he mean, “the best people to represent the whole range of members of the Wisconsin Annual Conference,” (I think not) or does he mean, “People who agree with my personal, theological, and moral opinions about the church and Christianity?” (probably)  So, we head into elections drawing dividing lines in the sand and slotting “us” and “them” so that everything is cast into a “win/lose” situation.  How long must we dissipate our best energy and ideas in senseless false dichotomies until we wake up to the fact that such binary thinking is going to kill us?  Yes, I know this is a continuation of the rant I have been on lately, but I am sorry low-order thinking results in low-order faith and relegates us to the status of lowest common denominator.  We fail on every count:  we thumb our noses at God, we deny the gospel of Jesus Christ, we defy the unifying power of the Holy Spirit, we destroy any visionary witness to the world that there are superior ways to settle differences of opinion and disputes over core values.  We make ourselves irrelevant and meaningless — and we wonder why people leave and new people don’t join…

 Some want to defend simplistic thinking as simple, naive (pure) thinking.  Fine, look how well it has worked for us so far.  If we want more of what we’ve got (less and less), then by all means let’s celebrate our ignorance and immaturity.  Is such a statement drawing a line in the sand, making an “us/them” false dichotomy?  Only if we see it as declarative rather than descriptive, because I am not saying that is what should be or what must be — I am saying that where it IS, it is destructive and damaging.  “Both/and” thinking is an invitation to expand.  We bring our “either/or” thinking with us.  I can believe something is wrong or a sin or a crime and still be in communion with others who disagree in a “both/and” world.  I cannot do the same if I stop at “either/or.”  I can disagree and still stay in relationship in “both/and;” not so much, not so easily in “either/or.”  In “either/or” I live in constant fear that someone who is different might rob me of something near and dear to me.  My relationships are predicated on safety and security, making sure I am not diminished in any way.  “Both/and” allows me to safely engage with anyone, because who I am is not in any way dependent on whether they agree with me or not.  I can happily coexist with Hindus, Muslims, Lesbians, Native Americans, Atheists, Baptists, and Nuclear Physicists and not feel threatened or insulted by any of them — a wonderful (heavenly?) place to be.  I can exchange ideas and when I find something with which I disagree it does one of three things: 1) it forces me to expand my understanding and learn something new, 2) it forces me to clarify why I don’t agree and strengthen my own reasoning, or 3) it reinforces what I already believe and helps me understand why I think and feel the way I do.  Nothing to fight about.  No reason to attack.  To invite people to higher-order cognitive processes is merely to point out the line that already exists and to welcome them to cross the line, thereby erasing it.

The bottom line for me is ethical/spiritual/theological: “we are better off together than apart.”  Our life on earth is a life together.  It is a journey that acknowledges that everyone is a gift in potentia, and that our efforts should be devoted to being the very best we can possibly be to others.  God makes us, and calls us “good;” Christ calls us, and expects us to be “better;” the Holy Spirit empowers us to be “great.”  We cannot ever become great on our own — we need God and we need each other, and all of us is better than some of us.  My Christian brothers and sisters may choose to spend their time and energy focusing on what makes us different — one what makes one group “right” and the other “wrong,” but as for me and my household, we choose life.  We choose to fill our life with joy, hope, promise, and good will.  I don’t want to “attack” anyone, though I do want the freedom to hold a free exchange of ideas, including disagreement.  I don’t want to judge anyone, though judgment seeps into every human encounter — I simply do not want my judgments to rule me.  Instead, I want a deeper conviction to be more Christlike — more compassionate, merciful, tolerant, patient, kind and gentle — to guide my every thought and action.  I would love to find something — anything — that I hold in common with every person I meet, regardless of whether we could ever be best buddies or not.  “Either/or” just doesn’t do it for me anymore, and I don’t think it can ever lead us to the place God desires us to be.  It “misses the mark,” (the literal tranlation of the word “sin”) and as long as we are so far off target, there is no way we can ever hope to meet in the middle — the center where Christ abides.

17 replies

  1. I’ve been reading The Prophetic Imagination by Brueggemann, and it seems to me that a prophetic voice that is grieved by our existing systems, which reminds us of what God has done in the past, is very much needed. Your remarks frequently are prophetic to me. Thank you for your deep thinking and compassion.

  2. it would seem that those who challenge the status quo are often seen and understood to be persons who are attacking simply for the purpose of being agressively difficult. i sense it is something of a defense mechanism in the people who are offended for challenge in the addressing of things inaccurate, not helpful or ineffective. as it is, there is lots of comfort to be found in inaccuracies, less than helpful things, along with that which is not effective. attempts to help people connect with how that is the reality we so often choose to live is painful, and sometimes especially for the one who is trying to help people move to a more deep, centered and faithful place to be.

  3. Well said, although I struggle with the difficult tension between unity and justice. I am finding it increasingly difficult to link hands with my brothers’ and sisters’ oppressors. Should we?

    • There is a fine and subtle line between unity and uninamity. I do not seek a church where there is no disagreement — this would be intolerably boring in my opinion. HOW we disagree is the key point for me. I have been very fortunate to be cast into hundreds of situations (by working for the General Board of Discipleship) where I have been challenged to work with people I completely disagree with. Yet, I do believe that each of us has value, brings gifts, and that through intentional effort we can find ways to be “greater than the sum of our parts” — and I refuse to be made less by the sum of our differences. This is where I fear the church is headed — by continued strife, split and separation we will all be less than what God envisions we can be. We need to be champions of justice, mercy and grace — but I think we do that best by staying focused on the good rather than wasting a lot of effort trying to convert those who disagree with us. But this is more art than science, and I am an idealist (though most people label me a cynic…) and I want to believe we can find a way to witness to true unity even in the struggle of our differences of opinion and belief.

  4. So how does “both/and” work in the present conflict within the UMC over sexual identity? We both procede to ordain and appoint practicing homosexuals and allow local congregations to refuse to accept them? Does that improve the situation?

    • My sense is that the relationship with gay and lesbian leaders will follow a similar path as that of divorcees, women, racial minorities, etc. Each have been excluded based on particular interpretations of scripture in “us/them, either/or” fashion for decades — until the division is not evenly weigted anymore. Pew published a report last week that indicates a majority of Americans (58%) say that homosexuality should be accepted — including a substantial increase in Christian’s acceptance as well. Apart from a judgment of “is this a good thing or a bad thing,” it is a likely thing, and seeking a way to be in covenant seems to me a better process than seeking ways to further divide and damage.

  5. Dan:
    I enjoy your blogs and look forward to reading your perspectives on the issues facing the United Methodist Church. However, I’m somewhat bemused at your recent writings.

    For quite a while you seemed to be saying that the UMC has no sense of itself in terms of how to make disciples for the transformation of the world. Part of the problem in our inability to evangelize is that the average Methodist cannot answer the questions – Why are you a Methodist? What is it that we as Methodists believe? I adamantly believe that we must be able to answer these questions. If we can’t articulate why we are Methodists, why would anyone want to join us?

    I seem to remember you suggesting that people need to read the Book of Discipline in order to understand the doctrines of the Church. This is a great idea. There is a perception that you can be a Methodist and believe whatever you want. Our previous efforts to be all things to all people helped to perpetuate that perception. I can’t help but believe that our failure to adhere to the doctrines and tenets of the Church has left us adrift with no “sense of ourself.”

    However, now you are critical of someone who wants to ensure that the “right people” are elected to General Conference. You assume this attitude is exclusionary – an either/or proposition. Yet, can’t people of good conscience with core convictions grounded in our Wesleyan/Christian doctrines advocate for what they believe to be right? Can’t we exhibit the “fruits of the Spirit” without abdicating core beliefs as to what is right and what is wrong? Must we concede and copitulate to those who break covenant with the Church in the desperate hope to remain “united?”

    When we do this, it seems to me that we are again losing our sense of who we are and deminishing our core beliefs.Don’t get me wrong, we should be welcoming and constantly reaching out to those outside the Church to help them come and be the people of God. But we should constantly be mindful that being a United Methodist means something – and we shouldn’t forfeit that merely for the sake of unity…. I suppose that is simplistic thinking…

    • If the assumption you make is that the people who go to General Conference can answer the questions about who we are, why we exist, what our witness to the world actually is, and what difference we are making, then I can agree with you. I lack this confidence. If the trend of the past four or five General Conferences are any indication, we will send delegates deeply committed to institutional preservation, not transformation. Do they have to be mutually exclusive? No. Are they in our current approach? Yes. Do we actually use General Conference to review our identity and purpose to align what we do with who we are and what we are called to? Unfortunately, no — we’re too busy.

      The bottom line for me is that we will not legislate our way into a future, nor will throwing money at our problems make them go away. Our fiscal crisis is a symptom, not a cause, and General Conference is not the place to make the shift at this point. It is too short a time, focused on jots and tittles, steeped in politics, and constrained by a preset agenda that leaves little space for the Holy Spirit. This is why it is essential to send really good people who can maximize the value and benefit that CAN occur in this space and time. But the larger issues require deeper, systemic solutions — and my “back-to-basics” focus will work best from the ground up — where clergy and laity leadership in local churches make it happen.

  6. Just a tiny note to say that i’m appreciating your comments in reply to comments as well as your original blog entry….

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