Yesterday, St. James offered a Unique Conversation opportunity. Almost twenty adults dared to take part in what some folks might describe as a challenging conversation. Using a format for controversial discussions that was developed at St. James, the group discussed the issue of gun violence in sacred places. In a safe environment, folks shared a variety of opinions, perspectives, emotions, and experiences. In the end, participants shared words of appreciation for the opportunity to deal with one of the pressing concerns of the time. It was a productive conversation and time well spent.
Back when I was working on developing the Unique Conversation format - which I based on a model which the MN Council of Churches formulated to talk about same-gender marriage – a close friend questioned having such conversations in the church. Aren’t you asking for trouble wading into such hot water? It was a legitimate concern.
At the start of each Unique Conversation, I am aware of the potential for things to get out of hand. Afterall, these are dangerous topics. In a highly polarized and divisive political and social environment, things could go very wrong, very quick. It is precisely because of this tension that the church needs to engage in Unique Conversations.
The church needs to claim its identity as a repairer of the breach and a healer of brokenness. While everyone is moving to the poles and siding with people of similar opinions and experience, the church ought to be a place where differences find refuge. We have a unique opportunity to give witness to the love of God, found in Jesus, which is not the exclusive property of any position, pole, party, or person. Jesus demonstrated great courage as he sat down at the table with both his friends and his adversaries.
Following Jesus’ lead, the church can be the place where we can find common ground and values. We don’t need to agree on the issues, have the same experiences, or vote in the same way. These things don’t make us a church. The love of God in Christ Jesus – now that is what gives us our identity. It is also the place where we can find the kind of insight that is needed for us all to navigate our tumultuous times.
The church can be a safe place for difficult conversations when we honor differences, perspectives, experiences, and allow ourselves to be vulnerable. A key part of the Unique Conversation model is the respect that each person is asked to demonstrate for everyone around the table.
I am proud of the fact that St. James can be a place where such respect can happen. I look forward to more of these conversations in 2018. With each one of these discussions, I learn a great deal about others and myself. With each opportunity, I receive a glimpse of the powerful witness that the church can give as it honors differences. In the way of Advent, I join the prophet Isaiah as I dream about a feast when all people will be sitting around the table (see Isaiah 25:6-9).