“Oh people are always making dramatic announcements at Christmas time,” my friend Abby said as we baked Christmas cookies together over Skype. “Did you remember to double all your ingredients?” I asked. “Yes, do you want to lick the spoon?” she teased, holding it up to the camera while I mimed accepting the invitation. Could not ask for a more pleasant way to pass an evening as my friend distracted and comforted me in such a typically millennial fashion.
I had received a couple messages that day that had left me a bit breathless. And finding the island rapidly depopulating for Christmas, I was grateful for Abby and technology to bring love close.
The breathless factor in one message was the accusation that I wanted to split the church. It was a bit out of left field, but troubling nonetheless. I know there is a lot of pain back home in Pennsylvania, and it is totally unfair for me to sit here at a distance and reflect on it without being in the traumatic midst of it. Yet, it is all I can do.
After receiving the messages, I had gone to Cocodimama, a deserted little resort near the airport, to watch the sun set and try to pray. I have found that God and I are like two buddies who get along best when they are tossing a football. In other words, I’ve realized that I’m better at talking to God when my hands are busy. As I tried to relax and reflect, I began to fidget in the sand. I noticed the amazingly tiny shells around me and began to collect them. A prayer for every shell, like the beads on a rosary, I decided.
Once again, I knew that God was trying to teach me something, but it was not coming easy. This habit that the two of us had gotten into, of drawing out my learning and listening over a process of days, was tolerable here on Eleuthera; but it made me wonder how we would fare when I returned to the States and the rush of distractions.
I put my shell collecting efforts to rest, and waded far out into the water as the sun began its rapid descent. The thing about Cocodimama that I both love and hate, depending on my mood, is that no matter how far I walk out, I have never been able to get to water deeper than my waist. I am sure it is out there, I just don’t have the patience to find it.
I felt confident that God was trying to teach me something, so I waited and waited until the last bit of sun glow had faded. Thinking the sunset was over, I turned around only to find the other side of the island behind me lit up in its own pink glory. Just when I think I’ve got God figured out and I know exactly where God is working, God is already busy somewhere else. God is always “already” somewhere.
Well, I decided, this was going to take me more than one sunset; and it was off to my room to bake cookies over the computer with Abby.
By day two, I was apologizing to God profusely for how distracted I had let myself become. Will you never get it, these are not distractions from talking to me, these are what you are supposed to be talking to me about. Well, then, we went at it, on down the beach as I picked up shells along the way. One shell for each prayer. Round one of conversations was full of conviction, and by round two I was ready to face that question – do you want to divide the church?
No, of course I don’t want to divide the church, I easily responded. I just want it to be the church. And maybe my idea of what that looks like doesn’t fit easily into anybody’s box.
So what did I think the church should look like? The answer, oddly enough was in the shells.
They were each so gorgeous, miniatures of the diversity that fills the ocean floor. Pink and white and yellow and black. Sharp and ridged and smooth and curved. They did not catch your eye scattered through the seaweed on the sand. But put them all together in a pile and their differences made the gathered mass of them breathtaking.
That is what the church should be, each person being fully themselves and able to be fully honest about who they are. I don’t want to split the church, I just want us all to be able to be honest with each other.
I want to be able to be honest. I need to be able to be honest.
That is probably one of the reasons why I am United Methodist, because – we claim at least – that holy conferencing is the way that we make our decisions. Holy conferencing, or Christian conferencing, means prayerfully, respectfully and lovingly seeking truth together. When we dialogue we ought to be seeking together the voice of God and the grace of God in order to grow together in holiness.
Unfortunately, holy conferencing has become instead a method of trying to be nice when we talk to one another. Yet, there is something much deeper – the responsibility to be honest about what God is revealing in order to offer one another grace and growth.
That first part – being honest – can be hard, but it is not the hardest part by far. The other side of things is that we have the responsibility to be honest, but we also have the responsibility to hear and receive the honesty of others. Unfortunately, we too often listen with ears ready to respond, refute and retort. That is not hearing, it is merely listening; it is not dialogue, it is debate.
Our church history teaches us that we find what we believe through listening to one another. Through a series of Councils (Council of Nicaea, Council of Chalcedon, etc.) where scholars gathered together and listened to what one another thought and saw in Scriptures, they worked out the doctrine of the church. Now unfortunately for them then and for us now, there are consequences for honesty which is a bit intriguing. We all want one another to be honest, and we trust that God can speak through the minority as well as the majority, but in the end, the majority rules. Consequences for honesty that contradicts the majority has over the centuries ranged from death, as in the case of Jesus and other religious heretics, to a stern reprimand, to losses of the professional kind.
So laying aside all the questions of how we do what we do – the polity of it all – let’s get back to the why we do what we do. In whatever variations of councils and conferences we have carried out our discernment over the years, the reasons behind it remain the same. We believe that God is a living and engaged God who cares about how we live our faith and guides us in both subtle and quite active ways. We do not believe God is distant, silent, or bound to a certain time or place. We believe that one of the ways that God speaks is through human beings; thus, our belief that Scriptures, although written by human hands, had a healthy dose of divine involvement. Because we believe that God speaks through people, we believe that one of the best ways to hear God clearly is to get together and listen to one another.
So that is the why we conference with one another. The purpose is not to punish, shame or silence others, but to try to hear God through hearing others.
The key there, however, is hearing. For so many years now the caucuses on both ends of the church have been locked into listening in order to change the ideas of others, rather than listening in order to possibly change one’s own ideas.
‘They are simply wrong’ – we think of the other – ‘they are deceitful, conniving, and harmful.’ Both sides sometimes think that of people on the other. And maybe some people are deceitful, conniving and harmful – what of it? That does not mean that everyone who voices an opinion that is different is therefore deceitful, conniving and harmful.
If we do not think that someone could voice a different opinion than ours and actually be hearing from God, then we have lost the “why” of why we talk to one another.
As I gathered shells at the beach, I gasped with delight each time I found one I had not seen before. After a while, you got to recognize the more common shells, and so it was like finding a pearl when I happened upon a new one.
That is how I felt at the Mere Christianity Forum in college; that is how I felt in my studies and conversations in seminary; that is how I have felt when I have entered into ministry spaces that were wholly unfamiliar. What joy at hearing my faith spoken in a different voice, with a different perspective!
We live in such an exciting time. A time when all kinds of voices are speaking up, coming from backgrounds and perspectives whose theology has not before been given its due credence and respect. Women are speaking. Hallelujah! Theologians in Peru are creating their own theology rather than regurgitating our Western perspective. Praise The Lord! Queer theologians are bringing insights so fresh that they feel like a splash of cold water in the face. What a time to be alive! We are so fortunate.
Why would we stop listening in the 1200’s or the 1700’s or the 1950’s – before things got really interesting – before they let all the women and the poor and the powerless into the conversation.
I want to hear every voice, go to every corner of the world – not just to share my experience and theology but in order to hear how God is speaking to others. I want to gasp in delight again and again each time God uses someone else’s perspective to show me scripture in a deeper light. If we believe God speaks through one another, then we have got a lot of listening – and hearing – to do.
In order to live in such a world, I have to do my part by being as honest as I can muster the courage to be, in as loving and gentle a way as possible.
When we say “I am listening,” we should truly try to hear with open hearts not clenched fists. When we say, “I am praying for you,” we should mean that we love one another, not that we judge or pity one another.
This is how God speaks – sometimes through the majority, and sometimes through the minority, and sometimes through a still small voice – sometimes from the lips of babes – sometimes from the mouth of an ass – sometimes in the wind and fire – sometimes from the mouth of a heretic like Jesus – sometimes over the mighty waters – sometimes through the trees of the field – sometimes from the hands of the deaf – sometimes from the last person you want to hear.
God said to test the spirits, but God never selected any object or person that God was unwilling to speak through. Today, for me, it was the shells.