“I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” —Oliver Wendell Holmes
Yes, I was that evangelical at the More Light Presbyterians conference
How evangelicals and progressives can cross the theological divide
by Jodi Craiglow
In my latest round of what I like to call “sanctified stupidity” (a kind of holy vulnerability to my own lack of understanding), I spent a weekend in Louisville at the More Light Presbyterians’ national conference. MLP, if you’re not familiar, works for the full participation of LGBTQ people in the life and ministry of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Not surprisingly, I was (as far as I know) the only self-identifying evangelical in the group.
To say that I was stepping out of my comfort zone would be putting it mildly—but I’ve come to realize that if we want to call ourselves a “missional” church, we’re going to have to start by being missional with each other. Plus, I was tired of basing my opinions and judgments on what others told me “those people” were like. I’m a budding academic, for Pete’s sake! My professors would flunk me if I wrote a paper using nothing but secondary sources for evidence. So, off I went to do some “field research” of my own and see if I could make a few new friends at the same time.
I succeeded in both aims.
I’m still mentally processing through a lot of what I learned—that’ll be more than enough blog fodder for another month. However, I do feel ready to share what I learned about the process of building relationships across differences. Undoubtedly, I still have a lot left to learn on this front. But I’ve also come to realize that the ability to sit in fellowship with brothers and sisters who disagree with me on some pretty major issues, yet still call the same Jesus their Lord, can only be a sign that God is at work. (Lord knows, I wouldn’t be able to do this on my own power.)
For brevity’s sake, I’ve boiled these lessons down to six big ideas.
1. Go to them. Don’t automatically expect them to come to you or even to meet you halfway.
I learned a really important lesson this week: people handle themselves differently when they’re in what they consider to be a safe space. They let their guard down and are more authentically themselves than when they’re in “enemy territory” (or even on “neutral ground”). Obviously, you should gain permission to join them first and do everything in your power to honor that safety, but go ahead and seek out the spaces they inhabit and get to know them on their own terms.
2. Find a “person of peace.”
In Luke 10, when Jesus sends out his followers, he tells them to look for a local resident who will welcome them into his or her household. Not only can this person serve as a cultural liaison to the sojourners, but this person of peace also demonstrates that God has already paved the way for this encounter. In every single one of my trips “across the great theological divide,” I’ve found somebody who’s been able to serve as my person of peace. Let me tell you, entering and gaining acceptance in an unfamiliar culture would be pretty much impossible without these folks.
3. Get ready to hemorrhage mental and emotional energy.
Even with proper introductions, you’re about to encounter an ideological assault on two separate fronts. First, you’ll have to (albeit temporarily) hold onto your own viewpoints while keeping them at arm’s length—and the physics enthusiasts among us can attest that the farther away you hold something, the more it feels like it weighs. At the same time, you’ll be hit by a cyclone of conflicting viewpoints and emotions that’s going to try and slam shut your door of defensiveness. You’ll need to push back with all your might to keep it open even a crack. And before you know it, you’re tapped dry. (Even though I had a great time during the weekend, I honestly had a rough time walking when I got home on Sunday.) Pray—and then pray some more—that the Holy Spirit will continue to fill your reserves.
4. Listen to learn; speak to serve.
My research professor tells her classes, “You don’t have the right to deconstruct somebody’s argument unless you can explain their point better than they can.” (Let that sink in for a moment—it’ll probably take you down a peg or two. I know it did for me.) When interacting with folks who hold different views than I do, I’ve found that my favorite three words have become, “Help me understand.” If this weekend taught me nothing else, it demonstrated to me how woefully little I really know about these issues. If I want to act in empathy, I’m going to have to deepen my knowledge of the way my counterparts need (and want) to be loved.
5. Soon afterwards, debrief the experience with a good listener whose wisdom you trust.
Not only will you benefit from her or his insight, but you’ll also have the opportunity to express your thoughts and feelings. The experience itself is only half the opportunity; the other half is the sense you make of it and the wisdom you’ll take into other interactions and experiences. If your trusted confidant isn’t immediately available, at the very least write down or record your observations while they’re still fresh in your mind. (I spent the first half hour of my drive home talking into my phone’s voice recorder.)
6. Don’t get “inoculated.”
Youth directors across the church will back me up here—one of the biggest problems with short-term mission trips is that returning participants feel like they’ve put in their time and are now exempt from having to serve in the future. True confessions time: at the beginning of this weekend, I unwittingly fell prey to the “I’ve been to both the Covenant Network and More Light national conferences now, so I won’t have to do it again” mindset. I’ve begun to realize, however, that reconciliation is by no means a “one-and-done” process. This is going to take continued interaction and energy if it’s going to work.
Like I said, I’m still learning here; a lot of times I’m making up stuff as I go along. Dear reader, I’d love your feedback and insight: what strategies have you found helpful when interacting with folks with whom you don’t see eye-to-eye? Let’s start a conversation.
Jodi Craiglow is an adjunct professor and PhD student at Trinity International University, a ruling elder at First Presbyterian Church in Libertyville, Illinois, and a curriculum developer for the Synod of Mid America’s Theocademy. In what spare time she has, she loves to sing and travel (together, if the opportunity affords).