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Friday, January 9, 2015


A ministry colleague once told me how distressed she was when she was informed in a seminary class that referring to God as "Father" was "oppressive to women." Her father abandoned her and her mother when she was a baby, and she had spent her whole life trying to come to terms with that pain. Being able to relate to God as Father, she said, had been essential to her healing.

My point is not to debate the rightness or wrongness of something called "inclusive language." I share this story as an example of how deeply biographical faith is.

People often talk about faith as if it consisted of "things" called "beliefs." Beliefs are ideas we hold in our minds. Or they talk about theology in terms of "positions" -- taking a stand at a particular place. But our faith and our theology are always deeply enmeshed in the unfolding, changing story of our lives.

And maybe what's called for when we run up against our differences is not so much an argument as a conversation. Not "You are so wrong to say that," but, "Tell me why it is so important to you to say that -- and let me tell you why it causes me so much pain." 

Joyce Carol Oates' novel We Were the Mulvaneys is about a family plunged into crisis by a traumatic event. Each member reacts to this trauma in his or her own way, but they are all intimately tied together.

The second oldest of the four Mulvaney children, Patrick, searches for truth in science. "There are scientifically demonstrable ways of [perceiving reality], and there are superstititious, self-deluding ways," Patrick says. "You can have one or the other but not both." Either/or. Faith or fact. Truth or falsehood.

It's really clear, though, that Patrick is drawn to science because of a deep inner need to find something in life more trustworthy than people -- something fixed and firm that you can measure, that isn't subject to irrational moods, that doesn't let you down. Patrick's scientific unbelief is every bit as emotional, non-rational -- biographical -- as the simple church-going faith of his mother that he has rejected.

Do you know that that word conversation and the word conversion are very closely related? They come from the same Latin root meaning "to turn with." This suggests that conversation is more than superficial chit-chat. Conversation has the power to convert us, to turn us to a new way of seeing, to bring us to a different place. Every time we enter a conversation, we face the possibility that we might be changed by it.

Maybe that's why it's easier to argue than to converse.

Churches have their biographies just like individuals. Congregations live out a story. Those stories invite conversation.

The narrative most churches tell these days is one of grief over a lost past and anxiety about an uncertain future. And they want to know, "Who or what caused this?" and "What can we do?" Those are questions that are almost guaranteed to generate arguments.

But what if, instead of assigning blame, or trying to fix a problem, we were a lot more intentional about entering into conversations -- creating safe spaces where real conversation can take place -- where we can talk about what is deeply true and important -- telling and listening? What if we were more open to the possibility that conversation can lead to conversion?

How could we do that, within and among our congregations? I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts.