Monday, June 20, 2016

Robert's Rules, General Conference, and How to Start a Movement

     One afternoon during my denomination’s recent General Conference, legislative action was getting bogged down. Points of order, substitute motions, speeches for and against, questions called, more points of order, and then votes in which weary delegates weren’t entirely sure what they were voting on or why. After a query about Robert’s Rules of Order, somebody behind me harrumphed, “Who is this Robert guy anyway? Is he in the Bible?”

     At about this time, to slake the boredom, I sneaked a peek at my email box, stealthily, of course. A friend had sent me a YouTube link with the comment, “Check this out.” As I was wearing a headset so I could listen in on the translations of speeches being made at the conference, it was easy to watch and listen to the YouTube – stealthily again. It was a TED talk featuring Derek Sivers talking about “How to Start a Movement.”

     Sivers showed a video of a bunch of people lounging on a hillside, when one guy stood up and started dancing, flailing about kookily. Gradually people began to look up and notice. Some ignored him, others were maybe a little amused by his lunacy. But after a bit, another guy decided, what the heck, I’ll join him. Similar silly dance moves, just having fun.  The two went on for maybe a minute – and then a third guy ambled over and joined them. Within seconds, there were two more, then five more, then everybody on that hillside swarmed together, dancing, laughing, having a ball.
     Sivers’s point is that this is how movements begin. The first dancer had to have some guts, a willingness to look ridiculous, not caring if anybody actually followed or not. The second guy is hugely important, for if he never joined in, the leader would get weary and sit down. The real key is the next guy, since “three’s a crowd.” With him there’s momentum. A tipping point is achieved. After three, there’s no reason not to join in.
     Musing over this, as the motions and points of order continued, I had three thoughts. (1) The movements in history I’ve admired were just like this. Clarence Jordan had a vision of community and started Koinonia Farm.  Millard Fuller came, and Koinonia sparked the idea of Habitat.  Jimmy Carter, from nearby Plains, Ga. joined - and Habitat is all over the world now.  Vernon Johns preached at Dexter Avenue Baptist in Montgomery about civil rights, and was ridiculed by his own people. Then Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke up. Then Rosa Parks didn’t stand up. Ralph Abernathy, Mother Pollard, John Lewis, and a host of people made it a movement. In the Middle Ages, John Wyclif spoke up and met harsh resistance. But then Martin Luther nailed his theses, and before you knew it, Melanchthon, Calvin, Zwingli, and thousands created the Protestant Reformation.

     (2) This is no brilliant insight – but the United Methodist Church, over whose barely alive body we were presiding at that very moment, is in desperate need of a movement. (And I'd add that I think it's unlikely this kind of movement is entirely in either of the directions that are currently pulling us apart.) And not just a movement to resolve sexuality issues. We need a movement, movements actually, which bring life and holiness to our churches and the world.

     Then, (3) we were trying to do triage on this church using the rules least likely to allow a movement to happen - or we were seeking renewal and revival utilizing something so cumbersome it could only squash anything fresh. Robert’s Rules of Order actually were designed to keep order (as in the name!) and prevent outbreaks of anything at all. Who was Robert? He was a preacher’s kid who became an engineer: Henry Martyn Robert. At his Baptist church in Massachusetts, they had just suffered an awful meeting in which conflict erupted over abolition. He set his mind to learn all he could about rules for meetings, and published his in 1876. 

     Robert’s Rules most often do prevent conflict breaking out. Although, perhaps in the way guerilla warfare breaks out when minorities won’t back down to the massed armed forces of nations, minorities eventually chafe under the brunt of losing vote after vote and eruptions happen anyhow. But healthy movements that embody the Kingdom never happen.

     I'm not thinking of trivial tweaks to our process, like the much ballyhooed Rule 44.  I am thinking of serious, non-conference transformation. Rewind the date to the 1940's.  There's a motion to have an interracial farm in rural Georgia. Speeches for? Speeches against? Let’s vote. The nays would win easily.  Jesus himself could have convened all the religious leaders of his day and put forward a motion that the Kingdom of God might dawn. By Robert’s Rules, the vote most assuredly would have been No, let’s not have a dawning of the Kingdom of God. Let's go back to fishing.

     At General Conference, we do a lot of praying for God’s Spirit to move. But if history tells us anything, it’s that the movement of the Holy Spirit is like the movement of the dancers on that hillside. Just one prophet speaks with great courage, which is met with scoffing and thumbs down votes. But someone else hears the truth and stands up, then a third, and finally others. Robert’s Rules will foil that first guy every time: Shall we dance? The nays win.
     Open conflict isn’t the worst of all evils anyhow. Jean Vanier’s lovely book, Community and Growth, contains a wise chapter on church meetings. He says we should be glad when there is an explosion, for that means church is a safe place, and we welcome buried, unheard feelings. The conflict helps us grow; the Spirit uses the tension to lead us. He reminds us there is a “little tyrant” in each of us, who insists on his own way. In the Body of Christ, it is the small, the extreme minority, the weakest member who matters the most (1 Corinthians 12:22).

I wonder if, some day, we might dispense with Robert’s Rules, which must be the worst possible way to try to carry on a holy conversation. When the faithful disagree, the advantage goes – always – to the one who is the master of the rules, to the one who is swift to the microphone, not to the lone voice that might have the fresh wisdom we need. Robert’s rules feed unholiness, like maneuvering, influencing voters, and worst of all, the notion of “sides.” Which “side” are you on? We vote then to see which side “wins,” and it’s winner-take-all. The vote might be 51%-49%, but the “official” outcome is just one unhedged thing. Winner takes all – and then we have losers. A political democracy works this way. But we are the Body of Christ, where we don’t have sides, and we don’t have winners and losers, but members. Priority goes to the weakest, the most anguished, the one who can’t marshal many votes, even to the one we’ve never heard from due to the shouting of sides at one another.

     Quakers don’t vote. They “discern,” quietly listening for the movement of the Spirit, which always comes from surprising corners. We need a movement, and we’ll never have one until we usher poor Robert out of the building. There must be a better, holier way to conduct church business in a big room, for the faithful to discern and respond to the movement God is inviting us into.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Orlando: We Begin Today

Sunday. The Lord’s day. On the way to church, or right after, we were mortified by the news out of Orlando. Another mass killing. How many? We’ve lost count. The ache, the revulsion. Even though numbed by the sheer repetitiveness of this news story, you shudder, and can’t turn off the TV coverage. I’ve seen rants on Facebook and Twitter. But the noise seems muffled somehow. A hush, a massive shudder has fallen over the world. I sit quietly, prepared for tears, but just numb.

I want names. To say 50 were killed, and it’s a record for the U.S. seems wrongheaded. Give me one name, then another. Each one has a mother, a brother, a coworker, a neighbor, a teammate. A person with a name is a life, a story, God’s lovely creation, a beautiful story. Because of the identity of those killed, we will rightly hear a cry on behalf of LGBTQ people. The point to be made really is that people are just people. Luis, who ran the “Harry Potter” ride. Kimberly who greeted people at the cellphone store. Juan, who’d just come out to his family.

In the first hours after every mass killing, when little is known, news agencies have to fill time. Much of the talk is speculation: Who was the killer? What was his motive? What were his thoughts? The important truth is, we do not know. We only infer, and guess. We have no idea what was in his head. Maybe this killer was drawn to radical Islam, but felt same gender sexual stirrings — and this was his way out. We cannot know what is in someone else’s heart — which is crucial here. If Omar Mateen hated LGBTQ people, he did not know them. He made a thicket of false assumptions about them.

Which is precisely what goes wrong in our culture which is so very terrified by anyone who is ‘other.’ As followers of Jesus, we never begin by prejudging anybody, ever. We go to the trouble to listen, to learn, never to assume. I live in North Carolina, where we’ve had a long-running controversy over LGBTQ people and bathroom usage. I have a friend who believes that, somewhere beneath the bluster opposing such rights, there’s a desire many Christian people have — that LGBTQ people just didn’t exist. I hope he is wrong. As Jesus’ people, we never wish some ‘other’ person would just go away or not exist. The only ‘other’ we want to get rid of is hate. Jesus anticipated we’d feel harshly toward ‘others,’ so he pretty clearly told us to love our enemies.

Pastors should say something, or do something. But what? When national catastrophe struck, the Israelites gathered fasted, and prayed Psalms like 44, 74 and 80. These corporate prayers were not for swift justice, or changed laws even. They cried out How long? They shook God, assuming God had to be slumbering. They repented instead of blaming. I suspect we should open our churches for special services, read the names of the deceased, read these Psalms.

And fast. Who can eat, anyway? Martin Luther King famously pushed back quite a few meals after reading newspaper reports about the killing in Vietnam. Or do we return too swiftly to our routines, our diversions? We are all of us deeply enmeshed in the very gangland culture that upsets us so. We good Christians have not just tolerated but created and funded a culture obsessed with guns, violence and depravity of all kinds. We have propped up politicians who pander to fear and talk tough. We have a lot of repenting to do. Was what Mateen did terror or hate? Our category for killing is Sin, but Sin is the condition of the entire fallen world. So in days like this, old wounds reopen; it’s time for all of us to talk with God, to get a lot of things straight. When these moments descend, we realize the work we should have been doing, and had better get busy with before the next tragedy. Our primary task as Christians is reconciliation. Sometimes when we debate the LGBTQ ‘issue,’ we forget there are always names, just one person, somebody’s son, somebody’s sister. I always wonder if hard-fisted judgment in church might actually foster a culture in which hatred is not just acceptable but actually holy? Can our tone be mercy? Can we Methodists reconcile, know names and stories, and love, and change communities where we live?

There will be pressure in the coming days to denounce Islam. Clergy can up their popularity in many places by castigating Muslims and wishing we were rid of them. It is just as easy for more enlightened clergy to clarify that what we see on the world stage is an aberrant perversion of Islam. It is up to clergy to stand in the breach at such times, and to say "My Muslim friends are horrified and sorrowful too." You can do so only if you’ve made friends with Muslims, and phoned them up in the hours after such a tragedy.

There will be a lot of talk about gun control. Quite predictably, Christians will demand it as the fix to this mess, while other Christians will explain how background checks won’t help, or that guns make us secure, or that this or that strategy won’t fix things. Isn’t it time to do something, even if it only makes the tiniest dent or doesn’t accomplish much? If someone you love has been shot, you do something, even if you don’t have a medical degree, even if it doesn’t really help. You can’t just do nothing.

Our country is hemorrhaging, literally, and drastic triage is required. Don’t Christians, whose Lord said “Put your sword away; he who lives by the sword will die by the sword,” have some holy obligation to labor tirelessly to do something, anything? If the prophets of Israel and Jesus himself provide us any clues, we must ask Can clergy speak respectfully but firmly to our people to rally them to be part of a movement not easily frightened off by the powers that be? Ours is not to secure safety for ourselves, but to stand with and for those who are hated, in Orlando, Charleston, in any and all places where precious children of God are despised and mercilessly slaughtered.

Beyond question, our problems are too massive for us to fix this week, or in a lifetime. But we begin today. Quite rightly, we pray, and fervently, not merely for God to soothe the grief of victims’ families, but to turn the whole world on its axis, to change a nation, to convert hearts, to temper a culture bent on distrust. We need and dare to expect a miracle; and we ask God what we can do as individuals and as God’s church — and then we do it with courage and mercy. We indeed are “prisoners of hope” (Zechariah 9:12), even while we grieve, repent and look for God’s waking dawn, and to each of God’s children, one by one, each with a name.