Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Noise of Worship at General Conference

     Nearly every day at General Conference, when lay and clergy delegates from all over the world meet to renew and reset our direction as the United Methodist Church, we are treated to magnificent, creative, high quality worship services.  We sing, marvel, listen, stand, bow our heads and even applaud, opening the day in the most fitting way possible, in worship of the God whose Church we truly are.

     I for one have harbored a little resentment though.  On quite a few days I’ve wanted to skip.  I’ve even wished (only in my own mind, not out loud) that we wouldn’t do it at all.  My reason?  In the worship, we sound so God-focused.  We smile and sing how we are one in God, that we are filled with grace and love, that we seek nothing but the movement of the Holy Spirit.  But then worship ends, and the rancor begins.  The power plays that commenced in backroom breakfasts resume.  The love, unity, and openness to the Spirit rush right out the door. 

     It’s the dissonance, the hypocrisy, the hollowness of our gestures.  The Lord must be up there reciting the words of the prophets:  “I take no delight in your solemn assemblies… Take away from me the noise of your songs” (Amos 5:21); “These people draw near and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me” (Isaiah 29:13).

     There are prayer vigils leading up to General Conference.  And there is a lot of praying going on at General Conference.  Delegates are led in prayer, and pray on their own.  The observers in the gallery close their eyes and lift their hands in intense supplication.  But we know what they (and we) are praying for:  that my side, my take on this issue will win.  We most certainly want the Holy Spirit to move – on them.

     The children in my congrega- tion have cut out construction paper and colored little prayer cards for General Conference.  I’m glad we shelter them from what the meeting really is like.  I am entirely sure that the praying they have in mind is of a different sort – and it might help us actually to ask them.  I’d guess they would offer something simple, like that we would be safe, that we would love, and that God’s will would be done.

     Any prayer for God’s will to be done latches us on to Jesus, who taught us to pray this way.  What is intriguing is that right before Jesus, in agony, said “Not my will, but your will be done,” he’d said “Let this cup pass from me.”  Jesus had his druthers on the outcome – and he is the holiest person ever to pray.  But his preference, his wish for what should happen, had to yield.  Jesus offers God the Father a yielding, a willingness to be surprised, however unpleasantly.  This is the very nature of love, which “does not insist on its own way” (1 Corinthians 13:5).  My theology professor at Duke, Dr. Bob Cushman, defined faith as “the conversion of the will through the crumpling of pride.”  And my friend, the evangelist Leighton Ford, says that in John 17 “Jesus didn’t tell us to pray that our party would win; he prayed that our oneness in him might be seen, so that the world may believe.”

     What if General Conference delegates actually engaged in what our children, and even so many of our grownup United Methodists around the world earnestly assume we are doing – praying, in the sense of being willing and even eager to yield our preferred way, to have pride crumpled, and our wills converted?  Not to win, or to grieve losing, or to finagle things so the vote turns out right, but a profound emptying, a suspension of judgment, a deep waiting on what God might stunningly do.

     Yes, you are snickering by now.  But really:  if you are praying anything else, or if you just aren’t bothering to pray, then let’s be clear that God takes no delight in us, and we will never be swept up in the miraculous New Creation God has promised to the Church. 

     Since we can’t (or shouldn’t want to) continue the hypocrisy of sunny worship as a prelude to ugly business at General Conference, it seems to me we’re left with only two options.  We could pray as Jesus prayed, and expect and engage in genuinely transformative ways of doing business.  Or, we could simply worship and pray, and not do any business at all, renewing the old idea of the Moravian Pentecost.  Zinzendorf summoned all the quarrelling, divided delegates together in 1727 for a conference, and conducted no business whatsoever.  They just worshipped, fasted, sang, washed each other’s feet, shared in love feasts, and Zinzendorf didn’t let them leave until they learned to love one another.  They found themselves moved by the Spirit; then they went back home, and set their communities on fire. 

     We can be very sure this is God’s will, this New Creation, which isn’t my way or your way, but God’s way.  God’s even big enough, and humble enough, to move genuinely open hearts during a conference where we worship and vote. 

Monday, April 11, 2016

Our United Methodist Book of Discipline

     Big, sprawling organizations, like our United Methodist denomination, need a book, a constitution if you will, our ideals and way of doing what we do, all bound together.  Ours is The Book of Discipline.  We all know people who’ve mastered its contents, and can quote chapter and verse from memory.  Then others have a more casual, maybe ambivalent relationship to the book.  Portions of it are useful to prop up your agenda; other portions you find to be embarrassing, or just plain dull.  It is our book, and it is every bit as lovely and messy as our lives and churches.  We uphold it with some fear and trembling, and some pride too.
     Now, if you had never laid eyes on The Book of Discipline, but only heard Methodists talking about it, you might assume it was (1) a law code, and (2) an exceedingly short one.  Yes, you might overhear other unhappy United Methodists yearning for that very short law book to be changed, although in gritty but defeated resignation.  Either way, you’d think it was very brief, and focused on one law.
    A common question asked of episcopal candidates is “Will you enforce the Discipline?”  This is code language.  Although the Discipline is far from a short book, bulging at more than 800 pages, the Discipline to be “enforced” is no more than a page, three paragraphs really, the only portions we vest any emotion in.  The little sliver of the Discipline that commands our attention, the insistence on enforcement, and also the craving that it might one day be changed, is about homosexuality in general, and marriage and ordination in particular.
     I wish we wouldn’t speak in code.  Or if we are so deadly earnest about the Discipline, press for the full 800+ pages to be enforced.  But the whole idea of “enforcement” should trouble us all.  Something feeling like “enforcement” is required when we have illegality, evil run amok – and it sounds punitive.  Bishops then are asked to function as a robed police force.
     But Jesus established a different kind of community, that trades not in force and punishment, but in love and reconciliation.  If you actually read the Discipline, the bishops are charged with theologically robust tasks, like vision, pastoral care, renewal, and prophetic transformation.  Maybe we can expect them to “uphold” (rather than “enforce”) the Discipline and all its lofty dreams.
     Besides, when we have rules, and a genuine need for order, what are theologically meaningful processes to restore order?  Punishing, like public censure, the loss of income, or permanent removal from ministry, seems so very secular.  Should church authorities dispense punishment? Or offer something better?  Aren’t there wise ways to uphold the Discipline and honor our covenantal relationships forged through it?
     St. Francis established rules for the life and ministry of the early friars.  One rule was you had to live in the room you were assigned, and you had to care for the leper you were assigned.  One friar complained bitterly that he had the worst room in the house, and he refused to feed or bathe the leper in his charge.  When this was reported, Francis decided he himself would move into the worst room, and care for this most difficult of the lepers.  Order was restored, and the mercy shown to the friar didn’t ruin him or the order, but brought him to a humble passion to improve.
     Aren’t there creative, humble, healing ways to uphold the order established by the Discipline – as it must be upheld?  If a pastor re-baptizes, for instance.  Yes, we could eradicate his income or fire him from ministry.  But perhaps, we could send him to the Jordan River with a veteran pastor who would befriend him and help him understand the overwhelming power of God’s mercy and grace.  Or if that is crazy impractical, then maybe something equally as imaginative, and restorative.  Of course, there are egregious infractions that harm others (like child abuse) or break the law (like embezzlement), and the Discipline rightly deals firmly with those, although even with a criminal action we would, as Jesus’ people, still pray and yearn for redemption.
     Reflecting a little further on rule-breaking:  we have in our country and in the long history of the Church a tradition of civil disobedience.  Once in a while you see disobedience with malevolent intent.  But most rebels I know who break rules with some real theological gusto are noble in intent.  They show considerable courage, and risk-taking, and quite often are zealously advocating for somebody who's been marginalized.  We don't suffer from an excess of courage in ministry - so are there ways to uphold the Discipline and yet in some fashion uphold the holy boldness and willingness to bear the cost in a pastor who with some agony feels it is God's hard will for her or him to choose covenant with God over covenant with fellow clergy?

     Let’s be candid about what the Book of Discipline is, and what it isn’t.  I recently decided to read the thing, cover to cover.  It is in quite a few places surprisingly profound, theologically rich, downright compelling, and it is everywhere very much obsessed with our common mission to be the Body of Christ in a lost world.  As best I can tell, Wesley and the early geniuses of Methodism fixed our need for such a book so we could get organized for mission, so we would never forget how connected we are in our labors for Jesus.  But who notices, or alludes to the dominant content of the Discipline nowadays?
     And all of us, both those who confidently wave the Discipline, and those who cringe and wish it were very different:  let’s acknowledge the Discipline is not divinely inspired Scripture.  Who is the author of this book?  Several hundred people, clergy and laity, working through translators in nine different languages, meet every four years, and after considerable rancor, debate that involves no listening whatsoever, and backroom manipulation, and in an exhausted, cranky mood, we finally take a vote, and the winner, maybe with nothing more than 50% plus one of those votes, becomes the Discipline.
     Something I’ve always loved about the way the Discipline comes to be, and something I’ve bragged about to inquirers, is that after the majority vote, we don’t excommunicate or murder the losers.  We are the Body, with different members.  We disagree, and then we get this book that I will never for a moment believe enfleshes God’s will in any perfect way.  God must look down on our General Conference proceedings and shudder, or chuckle, or weep.  Then God begins rooting for us to love, to remember there aren’t winners and losers in the Body of Christ, even if the “winners” do get their words into the Discipline.
     And have we even understood the Discipline’s own humble claims for itself?  The preface to the Social Principles, that chunk of the Discipline that contains the few paragraphs we treat as if it’s the whole book, plainly and rather invitingly declares “The Social Principles, while not to be considered church law, are a prayerful and thoughtful effort to speak to human issues from a sound biblical and theological foundation...  They are a call to faithfulness and are intended to be instructive… a call to a prayerful, studied dialogue of faith and practice.”  This doesn’t sound like an ironclad decree to be enforced.  It sounds like a holy conversation starter.
     If I could wave a magic wand and change our relationship to the Book of Discipline, I’d say Let’s actually read the whole thing; it is profound and highly motivational.  Let’s be humble about it; its composition happens during our denomination’s most embarrassing moments.  Let’s treat it as a covenant between us all – and if a marriage is any model of a covenant, then when there is any veering off, we don’t start with punishment, but with creative, and even sacrificial reconciliation.  Let’s not speak in code.  Let’s befriend the Discipline, and zealously pursue its deepest purpose of organized and passionate ministry, and redemption.  Let’s find ways for this book to be a joyful liberation to launch us into exciting and transformative ministry in today’s hurting world.  The Discipline truly can be a book of good news and great joy.

 

 

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Strong & Weak

     Sometimes I've used this blog to summarize, review or comment on a book - and I'd like to do that now, having just finished Andy Crouch's little book, Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk & True Flourishing.  Picking up on those perennial questions we all ask, What are we meant to be?  and Why are we so far from what we’re meant to be? he speaks of "the paradox of flourishing.  We are meant to flourish, not just to survive, but to thrive, not just to exist, but to explore and expand." 
     So what is the way be what we are meant to be?  "Flourishing comes from being both strong and weak.  Flourishing requires us to embrace both authority and vulnerability, both capacity and frailty, both life and death."  He goes on to demonstrate how, when we succumb to false choices and have one or the other, there is corruption and distortion.  Plus we can get tripped up by society's portrayal of a false kind of flourishing; "if you define flourishing carelessly, you'll miss the real thing."     Crouch handles all this well, although it's far from new.  The embrace of vulnerability has gotten a lot of press from rising stars like Brene Brown and Pete Scazzero, whose "Emotionally Healthy Spirituality" underscores this same balance, and the importance of going with where you are weak and limited.
     What is intriguing to me is the way Crouch applies all this to leadership, which "isn't about titles or power; leadership begins the moment you are concerned more about others’ flourishing than you are about your own.  Personal growth now serves a different end – not our own satisfaction but becoming the kind of people who could actually help others flourish." 
     Leaders need to embrace their vulnerability in order to be whole, much less effective - but wisely Crouch explains how "some of this vulnerability, for leaders, is invisible.  They bear vulnerability no one else can see."  I mean, I assume he assumes you show it to somebody, a confidant or spouse or mentor.  But this living into vulnerability without that dominating everybody else's agenda is pivotal, and not well-understood, it seems to me.  Crouch clarifies:  "The leader’s personal exposure to risk must often remain unspoken, unseen and indeed unimagined by others.  The leader must bear the shared vulnerabilities that the community does not currently have the authority to address.  The leader thus helps the community bear the community’s vulnerability  When leaders take risks, including the risks of personal disclosure, they do so for the sake of others’ authority and proper vulnerability."
     Crouch has a track record for producing significant stuff, especially Culture Making.  His newest is well worth pondering and talking about.  A nice book, a quick read, thoughtful and accessible.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Spotlight on Christianity, and an Apology

    When we finished watching the marvelous film, “Spotlight,” I felt the clear urge to apologize on behalf of all Christians everywhere, although they’ve not authorized me to do so.  No need for a spoiler alert with “Spotlight.”  This film recounts the Boston Globe’s exposure of the wicked behavior of abusive priests, and the institutional church’s arrogant, evil coverup.  Characters in the film share personal testimony that they just refuse to go any more to a church that could act so cruelly.

     Part of me wanted to stand up and declare to my fellow moviegoers that you can come to church and trust us, that real Christianity is nothing like this, that we are all about compassion, holiness, and serving humbly.  But no.  We are eager to listen.  Tell us you are mad at us, tell us we’ve disappointed you, tell us you want nothing to do with us.  Instead of rushing to defend, we hear you.

     And we are sorry.  I’m Methodist, not Catholic, and our founder John Wesley’s first simple rule is key:  “First do no harm.”  We Christians have harmed.  If you have ever felt harmed by the church, whether it is something as horrible as abuse, but maybe a failure to support you in your hour of need, or hurtful remarks directed at you or those you love, or however we have wounded you or driven a wedge between you and God, then on behalf of all of Christianity let me say We are so very sorry.

     I wonder if we can help each other back toward what we’ve lost.  On the morning of Martin Luther King day, I thumbed through some of Dr. King’s speeches, and I shuddered when I noticed again how often he spoke of love.  And he wasn’t talking about private love, as in romance or family.  He was talking about the big public, political issues of the day.  In the face of violence, he spoke of love as the way out.  Today, when there is controversy or frustration, all the talk is about rights, crushing our foes, blaming everybody else, with much fist waving.  As Christians, love is supposed to be right in our wheelhouse, but we’ve failed to talk about love in the real world, and we haven’t loved out there ourselves very well.

  

 



My Muslim friend Rose Hamid made national news when she showed up at a political rally with the sole purpose of stirring up some love.  When asked how she feels about “those people,” she said she doesn’t want them to be “those people,” but for all of us to be our people.  Once again, a non-Christian shows Christians how to be Christian better than many Christians can.  Church has labored long and hard to earn the reputation that we are a hard, judgmental people.  For this, we are sorry.
    We believe some beautiful, energizing, healing things about God, but sometimes we come off as dogmatic, wielding a Bible as if it were a weapon instead of a window into the heart of a good God.  Or sometimes we are just plain boring.  For this we are sorry.  I should add that we also believe you are beautiful, a thing of wonder, and we really do wonder what you think and how you feel.  We are learning to be better listeners.
     I hope you have fallen in love with Pope Francis as I have.  He was handed the reins of a church with much to apologize for:  priestly abuse, financial scandal, and an unfitting, conspicuous opulence in the face of poverty.  This pope delighted us by riding in a Ford Focus instead of a limousine, and sleeping in a modest hostel instead of the papal palace.  He offered the Swiss guard outside his office a chair.  He washed the feet of a Muslim woman, and tenderly embraced a man suffering from neurofibromatosis.  Instead of asserting papal infallibility, he everywhere asks people to pray for him.  His humility and immense compassion are palpable.

     Photographs of this pope are telling.  It is hard to find a photo in which he is not smiling, whereas it is hard to find a photo of his predecessors who are smiling.  Pope Francis reminds us that there is joy at the heart of life with God, and in our own selves.  That joy springs out of a mindset of mercy.  The pope loves mercy, enacts mercy everywhere, and has even proclaimed 2016 to be The Year of Mercy.
     I like that, and I’d begin this Year of Mercy by asking you out there for mercy.  We all need it desperately, and need to show it too, I believe.  When we in the church ask for mercy, we simultaneously commit to do better.  And we do. There still is a good, beautiful God.  As the Washington Post headline of Dec. 11, 2013 put it, “Like Pope Francis?  You’ll love Jesus.”

 

Friday, August 21, 2015

God's Verdict: Who Was Guilty?

     Another highly publicized court case, another verdict, or lack of one, the news received with delight and relief by some, greeted with frustration and anger by others.  The lawyers did their thing, the jury did the best they could.  Who really was guilty?  Who really was innocent?

     What was God’s verdict?  Who was guilty and who was innocent – in God’s eyes?  God, after all, would know the truth and not be shackled by loopholes or procedure.  God was there, at the crime scene, and God was inside both men’s heads and hearts.

     We would want God to be on our side – and God actually is on our side.  God is also on the other side’s side.  God loves all, not just equally, but beyond our most expansive imagining.  God wills nothing less than the rich flourishing of all people.  What the police cam and forensic evidence can’t show was the crushing sorrow in God’s heart when it all came down.

     God can do what the laws of the land cannot do – and I am sure this is God’s verdict on this controversial trial:  the officer was guilty, and so was the shooting victim.  And so are all of us.  Even if you don’t believe in God, you can perhaps agree that all of us are guilty.  We contribute to, and are simultaneously victims of a society that is afflicted with fear.  We believe that force is the solution to conflict.  We are obsessed with violence.  We do not trust or even know people who are different.  Even the most determined among us are a little bit racist.  There is a problem between the police and people we’ve not worked out yet.  We sigh or get angry about verdicts, wishing our side had emerged on top, all the while forgetting that as long as there are sides, we are all losers.

     The man who was shot was guilty, getting into a mess he could have avoided, reacting in fear or aggressiveness (which are nearly identical), with his own prejudices and faulty judgments, a broken person, a sinner (we’d say in religion).  And so was the officer.  A broken person, a sinner, as prejudiced as any of us, judgments flawed, bedeviled by his own fears.

     Here’s the other thing God knows.  That officer was a precious, wonderful person, made in God’s image, with real innocence, a dreamer, beloved by family, a man who nobly chose a career in public service.  A good little boy still lingers inside the grown man.  If you could get to know him personally, you’d love him.  If you could rewind, he would hope good would have come out of the encounter; he didn’t want anybody to die.

     Same for the deceased.  A beautiful human being, created by God, gifted, much loved, with an innocent kind of goodness and hopes of a good life.  A kindhearted little boy dwelled inside the grown man.  If you knew him well enough, you’d love him.  If you could rewind, he would have wanted a good outcome that night.

     Same for all of us, and our world.  Our world, and life in it, is so beautiful – which is why we grieve its loss, and why we’re protective and look for simple wins and fixes.  We are all so fragile.  God made it that way, so we’d be tender with each other. 

     You know all this is true, because you know yourself.  You make a mess of things, and you’re riddled with fear and you make lousy choices sometimes.  But you’re good, you love and have visions of wonder.  The grinning child in you has never packed up and left.

     We live in a fallen world, where confusion, hurt, loss and injustice happen inevitably.  So much then gets worse because we paint everything black and white, good guys and bad guys, the guilty and the innocent, the blamed and the blamers.  Juries and judges have to do their thing; they can’t say Both are guilty, both are innocent, and so are we.  Trial verdicts miss this every time, and we can’t change that. 

     But we can change ourselves.  We can see as God sees.  What if we all realized and remembered that everybody is broken, and everybody is amazing?  We are family, or we might be.  In every tussle in our family, I find I am right, and I am also so wrong, and in divulging both I can love.  Call me naïve, but I believe we can love.  We might preemptively fend off some crimes, and have fewer trials.  God, we know, would love that.

 

 

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Race - a Time to Listen

Naively, many Americans thought we figured out the problem of race when the Civil Rights laws were passed, or maybe later when schools were integrated, or maybe more recently when Obama was elected President. But 2015 has been the year we've been befuddled, numbed, exasperated, and driven to the brink of resigned cynicism by the realization that black-white relationships are riddled with pain, confusion, anger, and mistrust.
   It occurs to me that problems creep into all our relationships when we make a few fundamental errors, like (1) I assume I know how you feel, or (2) I presume to know what your life is like without being there myself, or (3) If there is a problem, it must be your fault, or (4) My life, my perspective, my feelings are normal, and yours are the outliers, or (5) I tell you that you should feel differently, or worst of all (6) I simply won't listen. A recipe for disaster in a marriage, among friends or family - and in our country when it comes to race.
   The Bible's persistent project is about getting inside the skin of other people. God did this in Jesus: instead of treating us as distant failures, God lived our life from the inside out. Jesus talks (no, he listens!!) to a Samaritan woman, tax collectors, a thief on the cross, Romans, and all the people nobody else listened to.
   The hardest, most painful book I've read all summer is Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. With searing candor and rising intensity, he shares what it feels like to be black in America. He will make you shudder, tremble, and blush - and then a light bulb pops on every other page or so.
   Coates explores why young street blacks can be loud and rude, why blacks fear the police, what it's like to be viewed with suspicion no matter what you do, how "nobody can be Jackie Robinson every day," how parents tell their children they must be on their guard and be 'twice as good' or they will discredit all blacks - but white parents don't tell this to their children. A friend of his was killed by a plainclothes police officer in a cruel, ridiculous case - and Coates says "he was killed not by a single officer so much as he was murdered by his country and all its fears."
   With every fiber of our being, we white people leap to defend ourselves, to explain why Coates is really wrong, to declare "I'm not racist." But in the Scriptures, listening, not defensive chatter, is the beginning of wisdom. Jesus' brother said "Be quick to listen, slow to speak" (James 1:19). "The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice" (Proverbs 12:15). Paul urges us to "Weep with those who weep" (Romans 12:15). Building relationships and community requires nothing less.
   It's also interesting that Coates doesn't ask the white community to do anything at all.  He's not blaming so much as simply telling what it's like, narrating his tory - and it's hard to deny anybody the right to tell how they experience the world.  When he speaks of "fear" it's white fear, it's black fear, it's everybody's fear.  He does redefine the American "dream," in a way that is haunting and closer to some deep reality than we'd care to admit.
   People want to rush out and do something this week about race. But how do you build trust in a week? I enjoy several friendships with African-American clergy; we trust and love each other. One thing I know for sure: it takes time. I've been at it for 30 years. And something else: it is mine to do more listening than talking, and it is not mine to offer fixes. White people have always taken charge, haven't they? Ours is to listen, try to understand, feel pain, let somebody else lead on this, and then move forward courageously and hopefully together.
   So start now to build relationships that will matter later on, and we'll need them later on. And of course, pray - which can be less of "Lord, hear our prayer," and more "Speak, Lord, your servants are listening."

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Familiarity Breeds Liking


     In college, I signed up for a class called “Social Psychology.”  The professor must have been amazing, for I went to only one lecture before I had to drop-add to make my schedule work – and I remember his subject:  “Familiarity Breeds Liking.”  Yes, we’ve heard familiarity breeds contempt, but statistics and common sense and experience prove that familiarity does breed liking.  You get to know someone, you perceive he’s doing his best, she has struggles like you do, you listen and get beneath the superficial – and you begin to like the other person.  Or maybe even love.

     Most of what bedevils us these days can be chalked up to a simple lack of familiarity with others.  The other day, a white guy explained to me why he owns and cherishes the Confederate flag, and then he ventured an opinion:  “I bet most black people don’t mind this flag at all.”  I asked him if he had actually asked any black people about this, and of course he hadn’t.  I have, and after a few dozen such inquiries, the verdict is unanimous:  this flag means hate, it arouses fear, it wounds.  Interestingly, my friend with the flag is really a fine, ethical person.  He just wasn’t familiar with enough people.

     The ruckus around same-sex marriage is similar.  In many (but not all) churches like mine, this subject is being debated.  When someone says to me, I am opposed to same-sex marriage, the Bible is against it, I’m sorry but it’s just wrong, I ask, Do you know any same-sex couples who wish to be (or are) married?  Have you asked them, What is your life like?  Why do you want to marry?  What does God mean to you and your partner?  Inevitably the answer is No.

     Then I know liberals who are advocates of same-sex marriage, and they generally view their foes as narrow-minded bigots.  I ask them, Do you know any conservatives on this?  Have you asked them Why do you feel the way you feel?  What does God mean to you in all this?  What do you fear, and what are you protecting?  Inevitably the answer is No.  Lacking familiarity, we do not like, and therefore we certainly can’t love.

     Guns:  we have a standoff out there between those who loathe guns and can’t fathom why we can’t get some controls in place or even get rid of weapons entirely.  But they generally only talk among themselves, and do not know or listen to gun owners or members of the NRA.  We may think we know others, but usually all we’ve seen are caricatures:  the worst NRA spokesman is the one we’ve heard, the most naïve gun opponent is the one we’ve heard quoted.  No wonder we never move toward any rational solutions, but only talk past each other with ever intensifying rancor.

     Race is that complication that just won’t go away.  We watch the news, we shudder over Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, and naively assume Charlotte could never become another byword for racial strife.  But in this city, we do not know one another, we do not trust one another, and therefore we do not love one another.  Familiarity breeds liking.  I challenged my congregation this past Sunday to make just one friend of a different color.  Our church alone, if we made these five thousand friendships, could alter the equation on race, unity and peace in our city, especially as we get closer to the Kerrick-Ferrell trial. 

     The police have become targets of derision, or at other times support for less than the best reasons.  But do we know policemen, by name?  Do we know their personal stories?  In Charlotte, “Cops and Barbers” is a marvelous initiative whereby we just try to get to know each other.  Our new police chief, Kerr Putney, has a riveting personal story that absolutely would cause you to like and even love – and trust him. 

     Is the solution to our problems more force? Or litigation? Or better policies?  Or is it simply realizing my college professor was right:  Familiarity breeds liking.  If we like each other, and even love, we will figure out how to solve homelessness, inadequate health care, substandard education, and crime, for I won’t let anyone I love sleep under a bridge or not get to the doctor or go to school without lunch or supplies.

     I applaud the removal of the Confederate flag from the capitol in my hometown of Columbia, and some of the other changes in law and policy.  Symbols matter.  But the heart of all the problems whose symbols we struggle to address is terribly simple, entirely solvable, and excruciatingly difficult:  we are not familiar with one another.  Only when we find ways to know the other, only when we get over the childhood rule “Don’t talk to strangers,” only when we listen, find the unlikely friend, and stop chatting only with those who share our bias and ideology will we ever have any constructive change and peace in our society.  Call me naïve, but familiarity really does breed liking, and builds community and therefore love.