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.