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Why Not Open Meetings?

The Commission on a Way Forward (CWF) met recently in Chicago in closed meetings that some described as “secret.” Secret is a powerful word. It evokes surreptitious deals made in smoke-filled rooms. The meeting was held at the Wespath building, and they are pretty focused on health and longevity, so smoke-filled was out. I understand the concern. No one wants to be associated with a lack of transparency. As a member of the commission, I have been thinking about when it is appropriate to be in a closed meeting and when a meeting should be open. Most meetings in the United Methodist Church (UMC) are open, other than staff-parish meetings in the local church. This is to say that when sensitive matters are discussed, like salary or job performance, we all understand why it is best to close the door and talk in a discreet space. The hope is that committee members will be more candid, thoughtful and creative in their dialogue. On the other hand, it is important for people to have access and information related to any process connected to church governance.

The CWF works with a series of very complicated issues. We talk about how to live together given our varied views on same-sex marriage and ordination of gay and lesbian people (the Book of Discipline only mentions the LG portion of “LGBTQ”). The work is multicultural. The UMC is an international denomination that has members in the United States, Asia, Africa and both western and eastern Europe. We are to offer a proposal that will allow for as much unity as possible while still offering some level of resolution to our long and sometimes rancorous discussion on these matters during a time when some, for the sake of conscience, have defied the mandates of our governing documents. You can see why the question of open meetings has a purpose. Reporters could share how deliberations are going. An open gallery could enable visitors to share their thoughts and add to the material the CWF has requested from numerous caucus groups, boards, agencies and church members.

And yet, I am sure of one thing: the closed meetings of the CWF have built trust amongst its members, dramatically advanced its work and enabled us to have open and forthright conversation. Members can consider a number of perspectives and proposals without feeling the need to spend too much energy guarding turf for the sake of an audience.

As I thought through these issues, it occurred to me that the commission is different from any church meeting I have ever attended. Commission members are doing the work of diplomacy. Members are from four continents. They are traditional and progressive, male and female, gay and straight; they represent multiple cultures and viewpoints. There are bishops, laity and clergy. While we try not to work in a representative fashion, we understand that we will offer a plan that could impact a broad array of constituents in several cultures and countries.

When the metaphor of diplomacy came to mind, I turned to a friend at Floris UMC who enjoyed a career in the State Department and has been interested in the work of the CWF. It occurred to me that our work may remind him of his own. After we had talked, I asked him to share some thoughts about diplomacy and closed meetings together in an email. Here is a portion of that correspondence:

“Let me offer a perspective on the operations of this unique commission. In many respects, it is a diplomatic exercise in the best sense of the word. My experience as a Career Ambassador in the United States Foreign Service gave me the opportunity to work with Presidents and Secretaries of States of both political parties on very important diplomatic questions. Our negotiating partners were people of good will, but they came different countries and cultures and often held policy views very different from our own. Naturally, living in a democracy, it was important for us to be transparent with the American people about our objectives and the processes we pursued to achieve them. At the same time, we needed to maintain the trust of our negotiating partners.

To be specific, we knew we could accomplish nothing without creating an atmosphere of trust with officials who started out with views different, sometimes radically different, from our own. We could not establish and sustain the trust necessary to reach understandings and agreements if we conducted talks and negotiations, especially exploratory talks, in a fish bowl. When we were striving fully to understand the views of other officials, it often was important to ask questions and test ideas. We could not do that if they and we knew that outside partisans in the debate would instantly and vehemently subject us to vicious criticism for not being sufficiently strident and uncompromising in articulating his or her own position. We all admired President Woodrow Wilson and his admirable ideals, but no responsible diplomat today believes that “open covenants, openly arrived at” means that CNN should broadcast live the proceedings in all negotiations, that transcripts of preliminary talks be published immediately in the New York Times or that anyone who wishes should be able simply to drop by and listen to the deliberations.

Rather, if the goal is to negotiate peace on difficult conflicts, diplomatic experience suggests other techniques should be used to enhance transparency and obtain input from interested parties. For example, it is good for the interested public to have opportunities to submit views at the beginning and throughout the process. It is important to provide informative but general and high-level updates, to explain the types of issues under discussion and, at least directionally, the possible compromises that are under consideration.”

The CWF is in a process that will move from closed meetings to a fully available report. It is to offer a proposal to the Council of Bishops that will eventually be considered by the delegates of the called General Conference in 2019. A more extensive update of our work is now available. Take a look at that update, and you will see what we are learning, observing and discussing. The commission will offer more updates in the months ahead. When a plan is eventually submitted to the Council of Bishops and then shared with General Conference delegates, the UMC will have a very open conversation about its merits as well as concerns it may evoke.

When Someone You Love Is Dying

Recently I talked with a number of people who are taking care of loved ones who are dying. Being with someone you love while they die is difficult work. It can be both emotionally draining and physically exhausting, especially if you are the primary caregiver. I don’t think it matters if the person is elderly and frail, so that death is not unexpected, or if they are younger and struggling with an illness that will take their life in an earlier season. If you love this person, it is a lot to process. Different people in this situation are asking me a similar question: what should I be doing right now?

My reply is to ask people to consider three questions:

What do you need to do?

There is a lot to do when someone is dying. You have to talk to professionals. Doctors can help you understand if your loved one needs nursing care or hospice care and whether your loved one needs to be in a care facility or with you and some nursing support at home. Equipment may need to be rented. Arrangements will have to be made. It will be an initial flurry of activity. Many of these services will necessitate long conversations with insurance companies to understand benefits and what is possible.

A lawyer can help you with all those documents people meant to create but postponed. We tend to put off things related to the topic of death as long as we can. While many people have a Will, an Advanced Medical Directive and Power of Attorney documents, more do not. A recent Gallop poll states that only 44% of us have a Will.

A funeral home director can help with funeral planning. The main questions you might want to ask your loved one is whether they would like to be placed in a coffin or cremated, and where they would like to be interred.

A pastor can help you think about a funeral. I have found this to be the basis for a conversation that is memorable and important. When people talk about their funeral, they begin to express the values that they hold. They talk about texts from the bible they want read or hymns and songs they want to be a part of the service. They often know exactly whom they want to speak about their life. When you ask them why they made these choices, you often hear some of the sweetest memories of their life. And sometimes, they simply say, you take care of it. If that happens, the pastor can help you so that the task does not seem overwhelming.

I know these are not fun questions or tasks. But they are important. We all die. We have to talk about these matters so we don’t spend time later wondering if we did the right thing for those we love. There is much more to do, but that list is a good start.

What do you need to say?

Here is the problem with death: it is rather permanent. If you have something to say, now is the time. No one wants to sheepishly begin a conversation in heaven with “when you were dying and we spent all that time together what I meant to say was…”  

Let me add one caveat. It is probably not the time to do a review of past conflicts or unresolved family issues. If they are not resolved by now, it is probably best to find a good counselor after the funeral and think it through on your own. Time with someone who is dying can be very sacred. Often dying takes days or weeks rather than hours. During that time, if you have some word of appreciation, some memory you want to share, or a simple “I love you,” this is when you do it. I am surprised sometimes at what people don’t say to each other that they later say they wish they had said. There is this line in the movie, “On Golden Pond” where Jane Fonda’s character complains to her mother that she always hoped she and her father (played by Henry Fonda) would have these great conversations, but never did. She realizes that her father’s health is beginning to fail. Katharine Hepburn says something like, “Your father is 80 years old. If you don’t have these wonderful conversations now, when exactly do you think you are going to have them?”

One way to figure out what you need to say is to sit down with a paper and pen and take some notes. Jot down phrases, topics, memories and things that feel a bit urgent and begin to organize your thoughts.

If you are a Christian, this is a time to ask your loved one what they believe about God and the afterlife. I am not advocating some form of coercive conversion. I am suggesting that people who are dying are often pretty focused on what comes next, and if they have not spent much time thinking about eternity, it often has their attention now. You can be a resource to them. Your faith can be a blessing to them if it is communicated lovingly and respectfully. Curiosity is typically the door that will open this exchange. When I ask someone what they believe about God and the afterlife, I may hear that they have a lot of beliefs that I did not know they carried. They may turn the question around and ask me what I believe and why I believe it. The conversations that follow are of great depth and importance, times when I can talk about my relationship with Jesus and assurance of salvation. It is helpful if you know some basic scriptures that might assist you; John 14, Psalm 23, Revelation 21 and many others will help you offer assurance and comfort. I find that people, some who are not even Christians, find comfort and hope in such scriptures when they are facing the ultimate questions of life and death. The key is gentleness in tone and delivery. You are sharing your faith, not closing a deal.

What do you need to pray?

There is a lot of sitting in silence when someone is dying. Your loved one may be medicated or simply exhausted. It will feel terribly inefficient if you normally live a fast-paced and full life. People are often willing to be patient and wait, understanding that moments when very sick people are communicative are unpredictable. So you sit and you wait. This is one of the reasons that being with people who are dying feels so sacred. There are few times in your life that you are at rest in silence. Here you can pray. There are all sorts of prayers that need to be said when someone you love is dying.

Thanksgiving – I hope you can start here with integrity. I hope this person has been a blessing to you, one of God’s channels of grace into your life. Offer your thanks to God for favorite memories; times they supported you, the joy of holidays spent with them. Hold them in love and give thanks. Make a list of how they blessed your life and offer it up to God.

Forgiveness – Sometimes we have to start with forgiveness for all that a person was not. The father who did not protect you, the mother who did not nurture you, the brother who drank himself to an early grave, the spouse whose love was never what they pledged are all examples of people we will have to forgive. People can be terribly disappointing. We are an imperfect lot. We are both more than others expected and not all they hoped we would be. If you cannot forgive the person who is dying, try a first step: just release them. Release them of the harm they did or the disappointment you carry. Ask God to release you of the bitterness you may feel for the harm they did or the good they failed to do. When you pray this way, you will untether yourself from the hardship that has defined this relationship for too long. It is not forgiveness, but a first step in that journey.

Intercession – Pray for their pain or their suffering to end. Or pray that the friend or family member they are hoping to see takes time to visit. Pray for your ability to accept their death, or for their ability to know God’s comfort in their death. You are there with them. You know their needs and their desires. Ask God to meet them.

Finally, when you are with people who are dying, know that it is odd when you don’t talk about death and dying. If you are a Christian, it is time to talk about the power of Christ’s resurrection and the promise of heaven. Remember this one thing: we are all going to die. Our ability to talk about death as a normal part of life creates the climate that allows the best care for the dying to be offered.

Talking About LGBTQ Inclusion in the UMC

About a year ago I shared a presentation about the dynamics present in the General Conference of the United Methodist Church related to the questions of whether the church should offer marriage rites to homosexual couples and whether ordination should be available to self-avowed, practicing homosexual persons. I wrote this presentation up, added the slides and included it in this blog. In the year since, many people have asked me for the slides but have been disappointed that the presentation was not available in video form.  This video is offered to those of you who want to see it or share it with others. Feel free to show it to groups or share the link with others who would find it of interest.

I just watched the video and realized that I have made a technical error. Over time, Lesbian and Gay inclusion (LG) has become LGBT (Bi-sexual and Transgender) inclusion. More recently this acronym has included Queer persons (LGBTQ). You will sometimes see it listed as LGBTQ+. Working on the Commission on the Way Forward, gay members have encouraged us to say, “issues of LGBTQ inclusion” rather than “issues of human sexuality.” We have adopted this practice. I use this language in the video because it has become my habit. However, I realize that it is technically incorrect when speaking about the United Methodist Book of Discipline, which only addresses inclusion of self-avowed, practicing homosexual persons in marriage rites and ordination. I apologize for any misunderstanding this may create and I am grateful for the grace you offer me in this area. I also trust that the good readers of this occasional blog are more than capable of doing the translation.

I also want to emphasize that the four zones I present here are offered only for the purpose of conversation about inclusion in marriage and ordination. Just because you are a progressive or traditionalist on these issues does not mean you will be predictably that way on all social issues. We are intelligent people and no one likes to be put in an ideological box. Finally, this schema is applied only to United Methodists in the United States. At the end of the presentation I talk about United Methodists who live in Africa and Asia as well.

The Rhythm of Life

Years ago there was a movie titled “White Men Can’t Jump.” I went to church in Bo, Sierra Leone today and thought of a sequel: “White Men Can’t Clap Either.” The music was beautiful. Six part harmony that gave new life to old hymns and blew the roof off the church with dynamic African praise choruses.

Picture me, a white man of calm church heritage with a few scattered friends from America in a full sanctuary of Sierra Leoneans who can sing and clap and dance out a rhythm that brings energy to their worship. Energy does not do this justice. Think dynamism. Vitality. Oomph. Even some zing. I have to tell you, church is rarely this powerful where I grew up. As every song changes, the congregation enters into a new rhythm, and I can barely keep up. Okay, I can’t keep up. I am embarrassing. The bandleader at the church I serve once told me that as the lead pastor I had to join the band when they sang and clapped to be a good example to the congregation. I looked at her and said, “Sing or clap? I doubt you’ll get both.”

Musical people do not understand my limited ability. You talk about it like it is arithmetic. I experience it as calculus. In Sierra Leone it is quantum physics. Every time the rhythm changes, I try to adjust. I stare at the clapping hands around me, and I’m still offbeat. It is just so humbling, because not only can they sing and clap, this congregation sings alternatively in English, Krio and Mende. I am English-only, standing there counting in my head 1-2-3, 1-2-3, only to realize everyone else is clapping 1-2, pause, 3-4-5, pause, 1-2, pause, 3-4-5. If they had taken me to the hospital next door and asked me to perform an appendectomy, the patient would have a better shot at success than that song.

In the midst of all my effort, I began to feel like the Lord was trying to tell me something. Truth is that I have a rhythm problem in my spiritual life as well. God gave the universe a rhythm. The seasons come and go. The earth rotates every 24 hours. It revolves about every 365 days. There is to be a pattern to our lives as well. Created in God’s image, we are to have a rhythm of joy, peace, love, kindness, respect, gentleness and self-control. There are days and seasons when I get out of tempo there too. Angry when I should be gentle. Quiet when I should speak against injustice. Unforgiving when I could demonstrate love. Ungrateful when I could experience joy.

There is a flow of God’s Spirit that requires us to surrender and just let ourselves be absorbed by its cadences. You know that moment when you are in the flow of God’s will. Love is a joy. Gratitude overflows. Compassion comes naturally. Peace passes all understanding. When I am in that space, I am in full community with God and those around me. When I am not, I am a guy working very, very hard to get it right who is still offbeat and out of synch with others. I create confusion where others bring harmony.

I laughed at myself, standing in church, celebrating the occasional moment of cohesion I enjoyed with the musical savants who surrounded me. I don’t get it wrong all the time, but there is plenty of room for humility and no need to keep track of my neighbor’s efforts. As the voices sang, hands clapped and people gently danced in their pews, I was humbled, and thanked God for such patience in the efforts of divine grace shown to an offbeat guy like me.

What Church is When It’s Church

I know I have written about this before, but I went to church last night, and I got to sit in a pew. It was the first Ash Wednesday service I have not led in 30 years. Pastors go to worship the way chefs go to dinner. You feel called to what you do, but your role can get in the way of your experience. Go to someone else’s restaurant and rather than just enjoy the meal, you find yourself considering the menu, noticing the decor, wondering why the fish has so many chives or the broccoli is so stiff. But not last night. It helped that it was Ash Wednesday, when Christians remember their mortality and need for God’s grace. It is a powerful thing for someone to make the sign of the cross on your forehead and tell you up close to “Repent, and believe in the gospel.” That will deliver you from a critical spirit.

I was reminded why I like church. I think church is a lovely thing. My friend Meredith said that one time, and I keep thinking on that phrase. She is right. You sit on a pew with people you don’t know but who share something you believe in deeply, even when some days you feel a little odd for believing at all. You can go to a city that is not your own and still your people are there in church. Last night at Atlanta First UMC there were all kinds of people. A variety of races, young and old, housed and homeless, all sat on pews together. Pews are wonderful. No defined space on a pew. People can sit far away or right next to you. Not much boundary to a pew. All God’s children just sit there together. Pews are good church furniture.

The service was led well by a young man who was the liturgist. He was warm and confident, his welcome kind and his prayer sincere. The choir sang songs I have known my whole life. Their singing was comfort food after a long day. Rev. Jasmine Smothers absolutely brought it when she preached. She was insightful and convicting. She told me to get my act together but reminded me that God was pursuing me, coming my way with both forgiveness and expectation for my life. She told me that I needed the season of Lent. She did not let me off the hook. I was reminded of how good it is to put yourself in a position where the Lord can speak to you through a diligent servant.

If you live in Atlanta, you should go hear Rev. Smothers preach. It is worth it just to be in her presence. I watched her place ashes on the foreheads of her parishioners. Her face absolutely lit up as she spoke to them and embraced them. The older I get, the more I find such moments emotional. As a pastor you often know the backstory people carry with them into church. So when you serve them communion or put ashes on their forehead, and you think how much grace they need or how much grace they have been given—when you know the burdens they carry or the service they have rendered—it makes you love God and love them more than you ever expected. It makes you grateful that God loves you too. Because you know that you are as much in need of grace as anyone in that line. That is the divine encounter you can have in church.

When I watched Rev. Smothers, there was such a look of love on her face for her people. It made me think about the goodness of being church together, that the love of Christ can reside in our hearts to such a depth that imperfect people can love imperfect people instead of judging and condemning them. It kind of broke me up. Even as I write this I find that emotion returning. There are just so few places in our society where people are valued for being children of God, where they are loved because we can see the divine handprint on their being. That was what I saw as those ashes were placed on forehead after forehead. That’s what church is when it’s church.

The service closed with an old familiar hymn. The smell of the sanctuary at Atlanta First UMC was identical to the one I attended as a child. The sense of smell can take you back a ways. As the hymn played I could hear the voice of my mother singing next to me in that old sanctuary of my boyhood. “Take my life and let it be, consecrated, Lord to thee…”

That building where I first went to church was demolished over 40 years ago, but before it was torn down, the church managed to write that song on my heart. That is the kind of remarkable thing that can happen in church.

The Failure that Fear Brings

We had a sermon series at Floris UMC recently called “Deeper Conversations.” The big idea was that if we learned about other religions we would be more likely to love our neighbors in our diverse community and we would learn a lot about our own beliefs. The communication I received over the past four weeks from church members has been nothing but positive. Which is why I was sad on Sunday afternoon when I pulled into the church driveway and saw that the sign advertising the series, which had symbols of four major world religions, had been slashed. I was grateful that the vandal waited until after the last sermon to deface our sign but was disturbed nonetheless.

There is a lot of fear in America today. More than I have seen in the general population in my lifetime. I was pleased to see that Bishop Bruce Ough, the president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, was one of 2,000 religious leaders who signed the petition by the Interfaith Immigration Coalition related to recent immigration bans resulting from an executive order by the president. United Methodists have a long-standing relationship with Church World Service and other organizations that work to resettle refugees dating back to the 1950s. This is not new territory for us. Groups in this coalition believe that “the U.S. Refugee Resettlement program has been and should remain open to those of all nationalities and religions who face persecution on account of the reasons enumerated under U.S. law.” Our church has offered support to Christians, but it has also assisted people of goodwill who passed through the nation’s rigorous screening programs from other faith traditions, including Muslims and Hindus. This has proved beneficial to the United States in many ways. Just ask the immigrants around you who work in engineering, computer science, medicine and many other vocations in our community. These are people who are loyal to our country, pay their taxes and support the religious freedom found in their new home.

But now we are being told that we cannot be too careful. In the midst of a global refugee crisis, we are told that the good work of the defense and intelligence community that routinely screens refugees admitted into our borders is simply not good enough. Rather than continue to be open to the resettlement of Middle Eastern refugees and allow Muslim visa holders to travel freely as they do business in the U.S. or visit family members, we have to shut down our borders. In the process of shutting down our borders, the executive order effectively shuts down a great deal of goodwill with key allies around the globe and hope to people who are languishing in the despair of a life in which refugees, on average, spend 17 years in resettlement camps before making the next move. It is despair that breeds radicalization, not religion as it is commonly practiced by the vast majority of Christians, Jews, Muslims and Hindus.

Christians who are citizens of the United States would do well to recall their own history. Go see “Hidden Figures.” Go see it now before it leaves the theaters. It is based on the true and inspiring story of a team of African-American women who provided NASA with the mathematical data used to launch our country’s first space missions. Three of these women, Katherine Goble Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, were simply remarkable in their determination, ability and desire to see the nation succeed in space exploration. The movie also details the way the culture of NASA had to change in order to allow the gifts of these women to be expressed. The segregated bathrooms and water fountains and accompanying attitudes about race found everywhere in the United States in the early 1960s were also found in their workplace. There is a very satisfying scene in which Al Harrison, the head of the Space Task Group, rips the “colored only” sign off the women’s room with a sledgehammer after discovering that his best mathematician, Katherine Goble, had been walking a half mile simply to use the restroom each day. It is a shame that integration could not come so easily in the rest of our country.

I have thought about that scene in the time since I saw the movie. What would motivate a white man in 1961 to take the risk to integrate his workplace to more fully include African-American women? I think the answer is this: Harrison was desperate for success. He had seven astronauts who all hoped to be the first to orbit the earth. He knew how to send them up. He had no idea how to bring them back down. The Soviets were winning the Space Race and time was short. He had a math problem and realized that he needed everyone he could find who could help figure out how to accomplish that mission. Leave no genius behind, and don’t let the old arguments get in the way.

The argument against including Goble and the other female African-American NASA employees was focused on themes of fear, trust and safety. Could African Americans truly be trusted to contribute to the space program? Could a woman really be trusted in a high security clearance environment? So often we tell ourselves that people are not worth the risk. We can never be too cautious. But Harrison was simply too motivated by a desire for success to buy into fear. He invited Goble to the meeting. He opened up the workplace. Together, NASA figured out the math that got a man to space and back.

Our nation’s history is full of the failure that fear inevitably brings. Black soldiers who would have fought bravely for the Union in the Civil War for years were relegated to noncombat roles in the army because of the prevailing assumption that they could not be trusted with a gun. The fear was that they would not have courage in battle or might turn on white regiments fighting nearby. The bravery of the African-American 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment in the assault of Fort Wagner in 1863 helped the nation understand what remarkable soldiers such regiments could be in the war effort. President Roosevelt, by executive order, interred U.S. citizens of Japanese descent during World War II. They were taken from their homes and businesses and were forced to sit unproductively in camps for fear that they would collaborate with the enemy. Years later President Carter commissioned an investigation that determined that the fear was unjustified and racist. President Reagan signed legislation that included both an apology and the payment of reparations to survivors.

I am pleased that Bishop Ough signed the recent petition and placed the name of the United Methodist Church clearly against racism and fear. Given our rigorous screening standards, I believe that it is possible for America to remain a harbor of hope for those who seek refuge on our shores. I am saddened that that such an idea today seems to sound as crazy to many in our country as putting a man on the moon did in 1961.

Thanksgiving After the Election

After a contentious election, the thought of sitting down to a Thanksgiving feast is anxiety producing to many this year. It is probably good to think about how you will handle that time for a few reasons:

  • Few of us gather with family or friends who have our exact same voting patterns. If some of the people at your dinner love politics or have deep loyalty to a party or candidate, they may be prone to sharing their thoughts with others.
  • Big events tend to emphasize whatever we are. Dysfunctional people, for instance, do not become more functional with the pressure of gathered family at a holiday. That is probably not the day your crazy Uncle Cosmo will choose to embrace sobriety and clean language.
  • Elections in the United States usually remind me of the time I wired my daughter’s dollhouse. I used thin wires hooked up to a AA battery to hang the lights. The wire tingles, but you get over it and move on. You had your preferred candidate, but you did not feel like the world was going to end if it did not go your way. This year the voltage was cranked up to 220. The shock of the whole two-year experience still smarts.
  • Social media brought a new dimension as well. Some of us have carpal tunnel syndrome from all the family and friends we hid on our Facebook feeds. You were blown away that your college roommate would “like” a quote from a woman in West Virginia stating that she was looking forward to getting rid of the First Lady and calling her an “ape in heels.” You were shocked when your cousin suggested that the opposing candidate should be drown in a river and then posted an “I love Jesus” graphic the next day. When your two neighbors began to openly insult each other online, it was just too much. If incredulity was turkey, we could feed the world right now.

So what to do? I am a Christian who is a United Methodist. John Wesley, the founder of our movement, had three simple rules that might help your dinner plans.

Do no harm. Wesley encouraged his people to avoid personal and communal sin. There has always been a tension in the Christian life between being true to one’s identity as a follower of Christ and the work of reconciliation to which Christ calls us. On the one hand, we have to have self-definition. For Christians this means following the rule of love, guarding our tongues and forgiving others. It also means calling out injustice and oppression and not looking the other way when people are being harmed or abused in some way. At the same time, we are called to be peacemakers and offer acts of reconciliation to others that build community. That contrast is a delicate tightrope right now.

This means that you may want to consider creating some boundaries on conversation. Tell people ahead of time that the dinner will be an election-free zone and ask people to commit to that goal. There are four topics most of us never want to discuss lightly: income, sex, religion and politics. Political banter over the bird produces the likelihood of a bad outcome. It will leave you with everything but feelings of gratitude. You may need to create boundaries with individuals. Call your brother and ask him if you can both agree not to discuss topics that you know will produce stress and ill will for others. Go see your daughter and ask her what she plans to do at Thanksgiving, knowing that the topic may come up. To do no harm you may choose to make alternative plans. A rotisserie chicken in silence beats a turkey and all the side dishes in the midst of a verbal UFC match. If the car simply won’t start Thursday morning, it may be a blessing in disguise.

Most of all think about what you will say and what you will not say, and where you will go if you start to say what you should not say. The only person you control at Thanksgiving is you. Charity, as they say, starts at home.

Do good. How we see each other is the key to good conversation. When you look at the assembled family and friends at Thanksgiving, see them as the children of God they are. I know this is not easy work given some of the bad behavior on social media or in other venues. One way to do this is to be curious. Get people in a one-on-one space. Take a walk with them. Then ask why they think what they think. Then listen. Listening is some of the best we can do for each other. This is not a debate to win, but a conversation to engage. Engagement means thoughtful listening and careful response. Before you respond, ask permission. “Can I share my view with you?” is a holy question. It demonstrates respect, just as listening without huffing, squirming, eye rolling or interrupting. Remember James: “Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” Memorize that verse.

When you get to the end of the conversation and you know the air has leaked out of the balloon but you still differ greatly, you might ask, “Can we still be family/friends given our differences, and if so, why is that important to you?”

Stay in love with God. People are disappointing. I knew that before this election. It is no less true after the election. Some have said things that you find deplorable. You thought your friends or family members were in a different place on issues of race than they actually were. It makes you sad. I have heard a lot of people say that the election brought out the worst in America. It would be nice to blame one candidate or the other or say that it was fault of a political party. There was a lot of bad behavior by everyone involved. But there is a more personal truth as well: if the worst came out of us, it means that the worst was in us the whole time. That is the greatest disappointment of all. Undoubtedly, the high voltage turned things loose, but it was there anyway. Now at least we can talk about it.

I have to stay in love with God because I need to be reminded that I am loved even with all my sin. I also need to be reminded that others are loved equally. I am committed to Jesus not because he supported any candidate, but because he offers a better life than this world offers. It is a way of love and justice and demonstrates that all people are God’s beloved. I need to experience God’s Spirit because I need help being my best self right now, and I am so grateful for the batches of insight, piles of patience and slivers of wisdom the Spirit brings my way. They help me avoid harm and do good, and goodness knows that this Thanksgiving we are all going to need a plate full of that.

So Why Are We More Scared Than Ever?

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How To Hide Teff In Your Kid’s Cookies

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