Can we talk about this?

March 3rd, 2015

This particular conversation for a handful of clergy in our corner of Iowa began formally in 2013 with a question: “Could we get some people together to talk about this?” The question posed by one of my colleagues was full of anxiety. When he said “talk about this,” the this felt like it was just too big to pin down: clergy trials, the threat of schism, how to be in and uphold covenant together, how to start or continue to sort out the nuances and issues of practical ministry, how to discuss the theologies that inform human sexuality.

We’ve been having these conversations already in the political arena; at annual conference; digitally with every new blog post, proclamation, or threat for a way forward; in our private conversations; and, more often than not for me, in the grocery store when I get pinned down in the vitamin aisle by United Methodist Church members who are frustrated, scared, and upset on either side of the LGBT issues.

We’ve been having these conversations, but most of the time, we haven’t been having them well. Conversation has become a synonym for debate, particularly when the camp lines are so clearly drawn. The process of debate demands that there be winners and losers, victors and conquered enemies. This way of debate leaves deep wounds on multiple sides. We United Methodists wield the four points of the quadrilateral like weapons, aiming to strike a hole in the defenses of the opposing camp. For my own dark, first-born-child, activist heart, this way of debate has served to entrench me deeper in my side of the debate. I know I am right. Let me tell you all about it.

So this small group of clergy colleagues decided to try for a better way. We intentionally invited a diverse group of folk who fell along the spectrums of age, experience, theology, and ideology to see if, as one of our group members put it, “we could disagree; see if we could push each other, and in that process at least understand each other better and grow toward each other more.”

If there had been someone to record those early conversations, held in a home, with breaks for lunch and laughter, he or she would have not been entirely convinced we were succeeding in finding a better way. It should have been easy, described another of my dear colleagues.

We were already in preexisting relationship. We had borne despair in ministry, struggles with relationships, trials with family, and celebrations with family, so other people would look at us and say, “These folks are already in communion with one another.” But when we got around that conversation, we didn’t know how to be fully in covenant or conversation with each other.

We were cagey. I was girded for battle. I had piles of commentaries and articles. I collected the latest biblical and theological research. I was ready to wield my weapons to win, even if winning meant defeating the friends I had giggled with in meetings, agonized with over ministry struggles, and taught with in joint congregational Bible studies.

It is hard to be open and vulnerable when one is in it to win. We had a hard time in those first days of talking. We couldn’t share well our own voices, fears, or experiences. It was hard to shake off the habit of debate, of merely stating our own positions with the defenses and arguments that back them up. It became clear that it wasn’t just gender, marital status, or even political leanings that complicated our conversation. The rigorous methodologies and ideologies we bring to scripture, tradition, reason, and experience were employed in distinct ways. It mattered where we had been trained because our language and first principle assumptions were different.

We had to learn how to really hear each other. I needed to do anthropological research on my friends, reading what they read, getting into their ideologies and fields of engagement, so I could actually attempt to understand. Like the story of Pentecost, which this group holds dear as a formational text for our conversations, we had to learn how to speak in such a way that others could hear. We also had to relearn how to be holy in our conversation and communion with each other. We began to end our conversations not merely around the lunch table but around the table of Christ. We needed that broken bread and cup of forgiveness to help us remember and put our broken pieces back together as the body of Christ. We needed that cup of forgiveness poured out for us, to be forgiven but also to have the capacity to forgive each other.

It took us a long time to get to a place where we might call this a holy con­versation, and we might not even be there yet. We will keep practicing. What started as a debate on LGBT issues forced us to engage the deeper theological concerns of who we are as humans and how God is bringing us together. The system of debate and conversation, the system that would force us to the fringes in one way or another, is starting to break down. We are learning to subvert the process that would send us running back to our own camps and are instead leaning into each other more than we are being driven apart. We have grown in covenant with each other and have a depth of relationship that was not present before. And we have discerned that we are better together, even if we never agree. For us, this way of leaning in is the way we see walking together in ministry for the next forty years. It is our way forward.

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