Racism, division in the denomination, mission, vision, and inclusion are areas around which congregations can reason together says Bishop David Bard in this month’s Joyful Journey.
August 1, 2021 | LANSING — “Come now, let us reason together.” Ever heard that phrase? It seems an invitation to a conversation. But, in its original context, the first chapter of Isaiah (as translated in the King James Version), really isn’t an invitation to reasoned conversation. The voice of God is addressing the Israelite people, and the context is like a courtroom. God, being God, all the evidence is weighted in the Lord’s favor.
Come now, let us reason together. We are not God. These words, in the context of person-to-person discourse, are an invitation to conversation, to dialogue, and I invite us into such conversations as Michigan United Methodists in this crucial season in the life of the world, the life of our country, and the life of our denomination.
Come now, let us reason together. The late physicist David Bohm makes an intriguing distinction between “dialogue” and “discussion.” Dialogue comes from Greek words meaning “through the word” or “through the meaning.” “The picture or image that this derivation suggests is of a stream of meaning flowing among us and through us and between us. This will make possible a flow of meaning in the whole group, out of which may emerge some new understanding.” (David Bohm, On Dialogue, 7).
On the other hand, discussion has the same root as “percussion” and “concussion.” “It really means to break things up. It emphasizes the idea of analysis, where there may be many points of view, and where everyone is presenting a different one – analyzing and breaking up. … Discussion is almost like a ping-pong game, where people are batting the ideas back and forth” (Bohm, 7).
Both discussion and dialogue have their place and value. We tend, though, to lean much more heavily into discussion. Dialogue involves a willingness to listen more deeply, to be more open to the voices of others, to discover new ideas and imaginings together.
I invite us to come and reason together, to enter into discussion and, even more, into dialogue. I invite us in the name and spirit of Jesus.
I have already invited every United Methodist congregation in Michigan into a dialogue about race. If we are all created in the image of God, how is it that our history is so marred by racialized thinking and discriminatory practices? How does this history still reverberate in our society? I have and will continue to encourage those conversations and continue to work with the leadership of the Michigan Conference in providing resources for this critical work; this work is essential to our journey with Jesus.
In this summer of unprecedented weather – heat waves, drought, flooding, and fires — we would do well to enter into conversations about being good stewards of God’s creation. How have the means we’ve used to provide energy and drive our economy impacted the environment? How might we repair damage done? How might we address a changing climate given that we have been part of that change? This is a topic to be elaborated upon another time.
This month, I also want to encourage and highlight conversations, discussions, and dialogues around The United Methodist Church. In 2020 we were to meet in General Conference where a vote was to be taken on a proposal that would have provided for division within The United Methodist Church. That General Conference is now scheduled for 2022, and we are entering the sixth year of our usual four-year quadrennium. I am beginning my sixth year of my four-year assignment as bishop of the Michigan Area and will likely begin a second year of a one-year interim as the bishop of the Minnesota Conference.
The question of division has been postponed, but the likelihood of separation remains significant, and this invites us into a time of important conversations – discussions, yes, but more important, dialogues.
For congregations, deep conversations about mission, vision, and values are always important and always timely. This is true whether we face a denominational division or not. It is always important for congregations to know who they are, what they do well, and how they can best be in ministry. We share a common mission as United Methodist Churches to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Yet every congregation has a certain uniqueness in the way they help form people as disciples of Jesus. Every congregation exists in a particular time and place and needs to think about disciple-making in their context. To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to grow in God’s love and grace and seek to make a positive difference in the world. Yet, no congregation can make all the difference the world needs. We need to figure out which ministries to transform the world make the most sense for us, given our gifts, graces, resources, and context.
One of the pressing questions, a question that is central to our dividedness as a denomination, is how a congregation will include LGBTQ+ persons. Our Book of Discipline encourages churches “not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.” (¶161.G). How does your congregation understand inclusion? When you answer that question, ask how your congregation might be in a larger church where congregations answer that question differently. How you respond to such questions should be aligned with your understanding of mission, vision, and values.
Now is the time for conversation, discussion, and dialogue on mission, vision, values, and inclusion. Now is not the time for decisions about what your congregation might do when a denominational divide happens. The alternatives are not even well-defined at this point and moving too quickly in the direction of such a decision short-cuts dialogue.
As a conference, our recent annual conference sessions have affirmed a certain kind of inclusion, a direction for our conference moving into the future. While votes on resolutions related to inclusion occupy a lot of time and attention at annual conference, you need to know that our conference continues to work on other forward-looking initiatives to increase congregational vibrancy, foster bold and effective leadership, and deepen our engagement together in Christ-centered mission and ministry. We have critical conversations going and will deepen and broaden our dialogue.
While we have affirmed an understanding of inclusion as a conference, I remain committed to the Michigan Conference being a spacious conference, a place where people of differing views find common ground in the love of God to be in ministry together for Jesus Christ. What might that spacious conference look like? We need deeper dialogue about this.
We also need deep and broad conversations about how we will work with each other and treat one another in this in-between time, this time before a denominational divide. How we treat one another during this time will affect the witness of every one of our congregations moving into the future, no matter what our denomination looks like in that future.
If we are to have the kinds of conversations, both discussions, and dialogues, that I put forward here, if they are to be genuinely productive and genuinely dialogical, they require certain commitments. They require commitments to mutual respect, regardless of disagreement. Mutual respect does not mean anyone can say anything any way they like. It means that we will respect what people share and encourage honest sharing and mutual vulnerability within shared ground rules for speaking. I am committed to conversations of mutual respect.
I am also committed to conversations that are truthful. In contentious times, we are all tempted to want to promote our point-of-view and slight other viewpoints. It is one thing to state one’s view forthrightly; it is another thing to distort the viewpoint of another. We need to be committed to basic truthfulness. I am committed to sharing information fairly. I am committed to having alternatives presented fairly.
If we can find ways to reason together in our congregations and our conference, to engage in constructive and deep dialogue, all of our churches will be stronger for it no matter their future denominational affiliation. To be able to speak with grace, honesty humility even in the middle of deep contentiousness, to speak in such a way that our conversation “ministers grace to the hearers” to use John Wesley’s phrase, will be a powerful witness to a world where such conversations are all too rare.
Writing this, I have had a Lucinda Williams song echoing in the back of my mind, “There’s Just Something About What Happens When We Talk.” Grace can happen. Understanding can happen. There can be mutual respect. Come, let us reason together because there’s just something about what happens when we talk.
On this Joyful Conversational Journey With You,
Michigan Area, United Methodist Church
P.S. As I was preparing this essay, new information is coming out about the Delta variant of the coronavirus. It spreads more easily than previous variants. It can be spread by those who have been vaccinated but have been infected and are asymptomatic. For those unvaccinated, the health impacts seem more severe. If you have not yet received a COVID vaccination, please do so. As you gather together indoors, make sure masks are available and encouraged. While we have found powerful ways to stay connected using technology, we all want to be able to gather together more freely in-person without concern for profound health risks. Thank you.