Joy in It!
I am told that Thomas Langford when dean at Duke Divinity School had a license plate on his pick-up truck that read “JOY N IT.” My suspicion is that folks who didn’t know Tom, might have mistakenly thought he was expressing his joy in driving that truck. Others of us who knew Tom, knew better. He was perhaps speaking of the joy of the truck, but suspect he was also talking about the joy of a life of faith, of living and leaning forward, of imagining the joy of a life of gospel relevance.
After writing about the current United Methodist General Conference an email came that challenged my call for repentance and accountability on the part of all of us, if we are to find a way forward. The writer said he had no complicity in the current impasse and didn’t need to repent. He said I offered no positive alternative. Or, as he put it, “you call us to a whimper and a pout in our separate corners.” Yikes, I thought. Whimpering and pouting? People who know me, know I like little more than a GOOD “conversation” — a solid and respectful debate often helps all sides come to fresh understanding, new truth. There is, for me, Joy In It. For me, a good learning experience is akin to my grandson Gus’ delight in cleaning up a bowl of chocolate cookie mix.
Conference gatherings for Methodists began in 1744. The goal was to reason together about what should be taught, how it should be taught and how Methodists should live. In recent decades our annual conferences leave little space for such conversations.
Annual Conferences are held in expensive (and expansive) convention centers where various interest groups and caucuses meet to plan on how to “win.” Candidate slates are put together, text messages fly through the ether as partisans do their work. Little time to listen to others here. Worship becomes a show where some, up front, perform and we are to passively listen, or perhaps clap along. I wonder when it was last suggested that we might sing together in harmony?
In my annual conference the expense of the big convention center means that we need to shorten the length of annual conference to avoid any extra expense. Thereby we avoid more floor debate, time in small legislative gatherings and time for the inadvertent joy of making new friends. “Come let us reason together” has been turned into “come-let-us-pass-the-budget, hear-reports, nominate-and-elect, have-performers-on-stage-and-avoid-lengthy-controversial-conversation.” And then, a dear brother assigned to the role of speeding things up, comes to the microphone and moves to limit the number and length of speeches. We are reminded of the expense of meeting in the convention center and we press onward and downward.
There is growing evidence of the health benefits associated with choral singing, the value of listening and harmonizing in song. During our debates over human sexuality I have been aware that our Mennonite brothers and sisters are in the midst of a similar controversy. Yet, they seem more able to hear those who differ, to make a welcoming space for diverse points of view. Along with the Mennonite commitment to peacemaking, I can’t help but wonder if their practice of singing hymns in harmony (and not just having only performers on stage) might be of benefit to the health of the whole body gathered.
Today, J. Steven Harper wrote a hopeful piece regarding the decision made to support the U.M. bishops in hosting another meeting in a couple of years based on recommendations of a study commission on human sexuality (Steven Harper). While I am more doubtful about a positive outcome, I join Steve in believing any positive way forward will require those who are involved to come with a humble and contrite spirit — a willingness to listen and set aside preconceived agendas. If this could happen — what joy there might be.
Joy in it! Hear the words from the epistle of James 1:2-5: My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; 4 and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing. 5 If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. (NRSV)
At root, our differences will call for us to struggle with our interpretation of scripture and our various “captivities to local cultures” and step away from the worlds of narrow experience. Folks like me will need to know how we can focus so narrowly on excluding gay folks based on a limited and questionable scriptural basis, and at the same time ignore other scripture “rules.” There are also “scriptural rules” on the role of women, divorce, the eating of pork, the wearing of synthetic clothing or the call to stone folks to death for many of our modern practices.
Fortunately there are good people who differ and yet who can joyfully engage in conversation with others who can provide us with helpful interpretive guidance. Knowledge, reflection, empathy, relationship with those who differ can be helpful. I would like such a group to respond to questions about the dimensions of a scriptural hermaneutic behind the exclusionary paragraphs in our current Book of Discipline.
So… I offer to my friend ,who sent his email critique, more than a whimper or a pout. My response might come with singing — learning again to sing in harmony. It might come in talking and moving our annual conferences beyond being just about budgets, reports and votes. It might change the ways we do charge conferences. Might we sing and offer constructive conversations? If we could, we just might be that we could again find JOY in being together. If we could learn how to have annual conferences and charge conferences that offered space for relationship and for honest debate and conversation, we might lay the groundwork for more constructive general conference gatherings. The burden is not just on the as yet unnamed study commission — it is on all of us.