Disfluency

There is a linguistic condition called disfluency that is characterized by disruptions in speech — long pauses, uhms, urrs, likes, and simply allowing sentences and thoughts drift away in unfinished forms. In its strongest forms (often referred to as dysfluency) it is an inability to articulate complete thoughts and concepts. In its mildest forms, it simply makes communication awkward and difficult. As a metaphor it is an elegant way of thinking about our current social, cultural, political, and ecclesial inability to communicate well. Dis-fluency is a misdirection of flow; a natural process constrained by unnatural forces, and indicates the lack of conviction we have over the things that divide us.

We are living in a cultural phase where people are more clear about what they don’t believe, what they don’t like, and what they don’t want than what they do believe, like, and want. It is so much easier to be against something than it is to be for something. The problem with this condition is that it frames so much in the negative. We create a worldview filled with adversaries, opponents, oppressors, enemies and villains. It is difficult to collaborate and cooperate with people you do not like, trust, agree with, or affirm. We are losing the capacity to disagree in healthy, mature, and productive ways. I remember photographs I saw when I was in seminary of men (in this case it was just men) arguing vehemently about the end to Apartheid, anger on their faces, heated in disagreement, but other photos of the same men at a restaurant smiling, laughing, drinking and sharing a meal. The respect and admiration they were able to form socially transformed their ability to argue and disagree when on task. Former enemies ended up as respectful colleagues, if not friends. I simply am not seeing this happen much anymore.

I witnessed this regularly when I served on the General Board of Church and Society. Conversations about what we opposed, what we felt were wrong, what we wanted to challenge were clear, focused, concise, and emphatic. We stumbled into disfluency when we shifted the conversation to what we wanted to create, what we saw as visionary, what we wanted to see happen. Our conversations were broad, fuzzy, generic, and tentative. Prior to the 2016 session of General Conference I was asked to present the priorities of the General Board of Church and Society, and was “urged” by the General Secretary and various staff not to drift into controversial or divisive issues, but to stay focused on positive goals and objectives. After I finished my pre-Conference presentation I was besieged and attacked by fellow board members furious with me that I did not talk about boycotts and petitions and protests and the laundry list of things we were against. Trying to be visionary about the world we did want fell to the wayside as we gave most of our energy to complaining about and opposing the world we didn’t like.

Systems are human creations. Our government is a human-made system. Our church (especially in each denominational and factional form) is a human-made system. Both are dominant-culture, privilege/benefit based systems, designed to support some to the exclusion of others. We can complain about this system all we want. We can tweak the processes, change the inputs, and modify the ingredients all we want, but nothing significant will change. If what you have is a wood chipper, it will effectively chip wood, but putting fine china in the chipper won’t improve the chipper or make it change its function or outcome — it will simply destroy the china. We need to stop trying to fix a dysfunctional and unjust system, but instead build a new, different, better system.

But our energy is a zero-sum reality: all the energy and time and other resources we devote to the negative is the potential productive creativity that we deny the positive. What we want must become more important than what we don’t want. We are uhming and urring a lot right now about what we want. It is so much easier to adopt a victim mentality, to abdicate responsibility on behalf of blame, and to love only those we like, respect, and agree with. In our rage and indignation, we are fluent. In our Christian discipleship and witness, we are disfluent.

Every journey has three distinct parts – where we depart, where we travel, where we arrive. Think Exodus. There is an Egypt, there is a Wilderness, there is a Promised Land. As long as the children of God stayed focused on their slavery and oppression in Egypt, they stayed stuck where they were. There was not enough motivation to escape the evil into the Wilderness until there was a Promised Land. Wilderness is never attractive in and of itself, but we will rise to all of its challenges if there is something worthwhile on the other side. In today’s culture and church, we are so focused on getting out of Egypt that we are simply lost in a Wilderness of our own creation. We desperately need a vision of Promised Land.

We sometimes use the language of Beloved Community as Promised Land, but it is fascinating how quickly the conversation moves from awkward disfluency about how to get there into passionate fluency about all the reasons it can’t happen. “Those people” won’t allow it. “We” are inclusive of ALL people, but they are not. “They” hate, judge, limit, oppress, do violence, disrespect. Labels abound – conservative, liberal, progressive, traditionalist, anti-intellectual, immoral, fundamentalist, fascist, socialist, anti-Bible, relativists – and these are the least offensive and insulting. The denomination won’t allow it, the Conference won’t allow it, the Bishop’s won’t allow it. We can’t create something good together without breaking apart and tearing down, destroying and dividing. What a lack of creativity! What a lack of faith! We are fundamentally disfluent when it comes to doing no harm, doing good, and attending to the foundational ordinances of God.

So all we are left with is to perpetuate the brokenness of the world. Our church will more and more reflect and embrace the political, social, and cultural polarities in our current reality. We will fail to provide a counter-cultural witness as taught by Jesus and Paul (and James and other early Christian authors). We will be deniers – deniers of grace, deniers of love, deniers of unity, and deniers of God. Or will we?

I am deeply encouraged by people who are contacting me to talk about things I am writing on this blog. There is a deep hunger to declare a moratorium on negativity, to cultivate a culture of care, to focus on hope, to put the health, welfare, and common good of a truly beloved community of faith as a top priority, and to become radically and completely inclusive. People are writing me constantly saying, “This is what we want, we’re tired of focusing on what isn’t working, and we are exhausted by all the negativity, we want to show the world that being Christian offers a better way.”

I find it interesting that when I write a critical or disapproving blog it is about three times as popular as when I write something inspirational or positive. But my commitment is to accentuate the positive more and more, and refuse to give so much energy and effort to talking about what is wrong. Often, you cannot do one without the other; the vision for what you want is generated by an assessment of what is wrong, but at some point you need to move from diagnosis to prognosis to prescription to therapy to wellness and wholeness. The time to commit to the good, the beautiful, the true, is now. We need visionaries. We need prophets. We need to become fluent in the language of God’s love and get busy discerning the Promised Land.

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