Today was the opening Sabbath for the annual General Conference of Elders for my particular denomination, the United Church of God. Most of the time there is a fairly consistent pattern to this event, as we are all creatures of habit (myself definitely included ). This pattern goes as follows: there are two split sermons by elderly and high-ranking ministers about the theme of the General Conference of Elders, along with announcements for the elders present and a couple of numbers by the Ambassador Bible Center Chorale in the middle. Although, truth be told, most of those were true about this year’s particular meeting, the exceptions were particularly notable, whether that meant the presence of percussion instruments in the ABC Chorale performance or their involvement of the audience in their song. Also notable was the fact that instead of the usual speakers were two fairly young speakers (40-somethings, that is) with West coast connections and a definite interest in culture as well as shaking up the status quo. As someone with a great interest in these matters, I was paying close attention.
Both messages provided a great deal of food for thought and reflection. The first message was from a local elder from the San Francisco Bay area who speak a great deal about his own cross-cultural marriage with a French lady. As someone whose life has taken me to quite a few international territories, I have witnessed, sometimes painfully, the fact that being an American has sometimes greatly complicated my life as I have not always shed the cultural trappings of my own particular place and time, much less the cultural customs and personality quirks that have come about because of my personal and family background. Of particular interest were two related stories that made me weep while I sat and watched the video feed. The first was his moving story of a visit to Elmina fortress, which I visited in 2000 during my own trip to Ghana, a visit that deeply moved me and helped reinforce my own horror of slavery and its brutality , in feeling the horror of a place that for hundreds of years contained the “door of no return” that led to the Atlantic passage and a journey far from home into uncharted territory. The second story, related to this, was a story about how this particular elder had befriended a gallant gentleman who had to overcome his own hatred of white people because of the childhood trauma of his own mistreatment at the hand of racists and the fact that he was an eyewitness to a lynching. The moving story of how a gentlemanly (if intense) man had to overcome such traumas in order to be godly was something I could relate to in my own way with my own rather fierce struggles against the aftereffects of my own dark youth. Although the message moved me to tears, it was ultimately an encouraging message, and a wonderful setup to the second message, which offered a lot to think about.
Before I discuss the second message, I would like to briefly discuss my personal acquaintance with the person who gave the message. The person who gave the message is a local elder who lives in Cincinnati area (where my particular denomination’s Home Office is located). When I first came to know him (and his lovely family), though, he was employed as an assistant to the President of the United Church of God and was also an associate professor at the Ambassador Bible Center, where I studied in 2004. He was well loved by our class for his honesty, his straightforwardness, and his refusal to shade matters, all qualities I highly respect. Partly into our academic year, he resigned his job in the paid ministry (while remaining an ordained local elder) and found a job in the private sector, deciding to remove himself from the political track that he had been on, over what I consider to be a matter of personal integrity. Although his decision made him rather unknown by many of my fellow brethren, I have viewed his decision with a great degree of admiration, and I was greatly pleased to see that the intervening decade has not made him any less candid (including about his own shortcomings and flaws) nor made him more politically inclined in terms of shading the truth. As a bluntspoken fellow who has little political skill, I found his choice as a speaker for such an important message to be rather heartening and encouraging.
The message itself was a revelation, and in many ways what I viewed as a personal vindication. In examining the importance of culture and building an appropriate environment for growth (both personal and collective), there were a few areas that the speaker focused on that were of particular interest and personal relevance. The first of the three points (“Put On Your Boots, And Bring A Compass”) examined the need for believers to overcome fears and go into the unknown, knowing that Jesus Christ sought out the broken and struggling and walked past those who were secure in their own righteousness. The second point (“Peel Back The Onion, Be Ready To Cry” talked about being willing to accept failure for growth and improvement, and stressed how congregations need to be places where it is safe to fail for those who are going to pick themselves up and try again, where we do not feel the need to pretend a perfection or remain stuck in a rut in order to avoid showing weakness. The third point (“Throw Down A Log And Build A Bridge”) told a rather personal story about the speaker and commented on our need to engage culture, which requires us to understand where people are coming from, their motives and backgrounds and experiences and longings. This is, not unsurprisingly, a major concern of my own reading and writing. It is therefore unsurprising that I would view these matters as a public vindication of my own approach to life and faith.
Besides these aspects of vindication, there was a lot of thought-provoking commentary as well. The message as a whole was a contrast between two mentalities, the citadel mentality of being defensive and fortress-minded and the caravan mentality of being pilgrims and travelers in search of a better future. This is, not unsurprisingly, another major concern of my writing . In order to be a successful caravan, one needs to build a certain degree of cooperation and trust to deal with the open conditions as well as the need to interact with other parties and posts and to deal with the lack of defensible boundaries in one’s lives. It is very easy for us, in the absence of trust and a feeling of belonging, to feel it necessary to build fortresses, which leads us to be closed to others and their struggles and concerns, and unable to effectively communicate and bond with them. God is our fortress, not we ourselves, and our goal is to become mature and Christ-like in the image of God, a process of refining that takes all of our lives. Today was full of good words; it remains to be seen whether these noble words, which I wholeheartedly agree with, can be practiced on the congregational level so that openness and vulnerability and sincerity are not dirty words that lead to social isolation and immense anxiety. Talk is cheap, and what is needed is cultural change. Do we have the heart to change our ways to be in greater conformity with God’s ways after decades of pretense? This is by no means a simple or straightforward matter.
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