Relationships in a post-General Conference world

June 25th, 2019

Many United Methodists are struggling with the question of how to relate in our churches one-to-one after General Conference 2019 and in the current political climate. How do we respect and connect with each other when the topic at hand is pulling us apart?

The good news is that most people from both sides of the current debate among United Methodists are still in the conversation together. Excellent. If we are to be United Methodists, this is where we have to be — at the table together. For those on both sides of this issue there is the need to talk, to listen and to understand.

How can we best engage this conversation at such a difficult time? I want to share ten thoughts.

1. There is so much more that unites us than divides us.

As a pastoral counselor I listen to those of all perspectives. From conservative to progressive — from Traditional to One Church — and to those on every other spot of the continuum. I have heard, and befriended, them all. The day after the vote at General Conference I heard relief and joy from some and sadness and disappointment from others.

I had just spoken with one of the latter who was most disappointed who was feeling distant from those on the other side. She specifically spoke of the African vote.

Not long after that conversation, my wife and I caught an Uber. We introduced ourselves to our driver who, of course, was from Africa. This is going to be interesting, I thought. She was a delightful lady from Ethiopia but had been in the States for decades. She came as a student. While in Africa she had been converted to the Christian faith. Then through her church community she had learned of Liberty University and had been accepted to their undergraduate program.

With much courage and with very little proficiency in English, she left her native country and flew to Virginia. The taxi driver who picked her up at the airport let her out at an isolated, nondescript place in the middle of the sprawling campus of Liberty. With her two suitcases, one at each side, she stood there on the sidewalk as he drove away. Lost. Alone. In a foreign land not knowing where to turn. Then, she said, “Two angels swept me up.”

“Are you alright?” two young men asked her. Her English was very limited. “Registration,” is all she said. “This way.” Without hesitation one took each suitcase, and they escorted her to the registration tent. They then took her, with her luggage in hand, to her new dorm.

“Two angels swept me up.” It transformed her, she said. In the name of Christ, she has spent her adult life trying to respond in kind to others — to become one of those angels.

As I listened to her words and the tone of grace with which she spoke them, I longed for my friend, the one who had felt the distance, to have been there — as this angel reminded us of our mutual high calling. I thought of Paul’s words, “The only thing that matters is faith expressing itself in love.” 

2. Focus is on relationship and healing.

I have said to countless couples over the years, “There's virtually no topic you will ever discuss that's more important than the relationship that is having the discussion.” How you say what you say — the respect, the thoughtfulness, the sensitivity — is at least as important as what you say.

If you came away from General Conference feeling victorious — be respectful and humble.

If you came away feeling battered — be respectful and gracious.

Do not argue over this issue. It’s a waste of time, and it damages the relationship. It has been said, “An argument is to find out who is right, and a discussion is to discover what is right. “

3. Respect the person, though you differ on the perspective.

Maintain connection with the person while you differ on viewpoints — something our society is doing so poorly these days. A difference in opinion does not require a breach in the relationship.

An acquaintance of mine, whose church had recently split over an issue, expressed her bewilderment at the breach saying, “I’m married to someone I disagree with more than that!”

4. Get to know their stories.

It's so easy to get tribal. We assume if we know which side someone favored then we can group them “over there” or “over here.” We think if we know how others sided we know who they are. We don’t.

Don’t merge the person with the tribe. Get to know their story. Get to know who they are. Then get to know the story behind who they have become.

The dynamic at play here is projection. We sit in a movie theater and watch a projection into the screen. It appears so real that we flinch when a scene frightens us. In much the same way, we project images onto others of what we assume about them, and those projections, too, seem very real. Metaphorically, we need to turn our projectors off and turn the house lights on.

5. Listen for the truth and wisdom in each perspective.

None of us have a corner on it, of course.

6. Begin each conversation on this topic with listening — attentive listening.

Attentive listening is truly a sacred silence — responding from the heart to the heart. These times of hearing and being heard can be incarnational moments of God’s grace.

7. Civility is the low bar. We aspire to empathy.

We keep hearing about being “civil” in these discussions. Absolutely. But when it comes to being the church, that’s the low bar. “Do not harm” should be a given. We aspire to something higher. We want to relate with empathy.

When I want to understand empathy I always compare it with sympathy. Each come from the root word pathos, meaning suffering. The “sym” in sympathy means “with” or “with another.” If someone is sharing their struggle with me and I am sympathetic, then out of my care for them, I am with them. This is a gift.

Empathy runs even more deeply. Whereas the “sym” in sympathy means “with,” the “em” in empathy means “in.”

Sympathy is to be with them in their suffering. Empathy is to be in their suffering with them.

The key word for sympathy is “presence.” For empathy it is “resonance.” I don’t have to agree with what you think in order to resonate with how you feel. I can continue to connect with you as we speak of matters from different vantage points.

8. (Then when it’s your turn) speak the truth in love.

What we speak is the truth. How we speak it is with love — always with respect for the person and with regard for our relationship.

9. If the tone gets angry, listen for the hurt and fear beneath the anger.

Anger is a meta-emotion, an emotion in response to other emotions. No matter how deeply we feel it, anger is not a primary emotion. Think of the primary colors — blue plus yellow equals green. Similarly, hurt plus fear equals anger. Hurt from the past, plus fear of the future creates anger in the present.

When you hear anger, listen for how they have been wounded. Listen for what frightens them. Then invite them to engage the conversation at that deeper level.

10. If the conversation heads south, look first in the mirror — what can you do differently?

I was waiting in line to get my cup of coffee. The couple ahead of me had ordered their lattes and we waited as the barista went to the back to get something. It took a few moments. As we stood there, another man came in. “Large and in charge,” as they say. Just his demeanor — how he walked, how he ripped the banana he was going to buy from the bunch — showed a personality of aggression. It wasn't a problem; I just noticed.

The wait continued, and I took one step away, out of line, to look at the bagels. As I did, the man hurriedly stepped in line behind the couple, in front of me. Again, no problem. I had technically stepped out of line.

So I took my new place behind him. He had captured my attention. There was a tension, a toughness about him, almost belligerent. And I began to wonder… You see, I had just been reading a piece on Martin Buber’s thinking from ages ago — about seeing each other as persons and not objects. The “I-Thou” instead of “I-It.” As I looked at him again, I wondered if he had had a father who was “going to make a real man out of him.” I wondered if his father had been tough, too tough. I wondered if this little boy, from decades ago, had wisely developed this macho shell to enable him to survive his childhood. Yet, sadly his childhood was over, and the shell remained.

I knew there was a story back there. Whatever it was, my heart went out to him. I looked at him, and what I felt was empathy. And just as I did he turned around and — God as my witness — he said to me, “I think I cut in front of you. I’m sorry.”

Was there somehow a connection between the two — between my change of heart and his change of attitude? I don’t know. I really don’t know. But I don’t think it hurt.

I don’t think it ever hurts for me to see you as the person you are and not the object of my projection. I don’t think it ever hurts to see you as you… and you see me as me.

I don’t know if there was a connection between my heart and his attitude, but I do know there was a goodness in that man — and all I had to do was look for it.

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