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COMMENTARY: Stop battering each other; let's try dialogue instead Bishop Sally Dyck, Aug 13, 2007
Bishop Sally Dyck
By Bishop Sally Dyck Special Contributor
At a recent wedding, I shared with a couple the three-word phrases that can sustain a marriage: "I love you," "I am sorry" and "Thank you, dear."
Someone came up to me afterward, saying he didn't think he needed to say "I love you" every day; that his wife knew it by the way he acted. He also didn't think he needed to thank his wife all the time; such "niceties" are for strangers, he said. He didn't say how often he had asked for forgiveness over the four decades of their marriage.
Maybe a marriage can work without words to sustain it, but my guess is that someone in that marriage is a long-suffering saint!
Words of love create relationship and build bridges. Words of forgiveness and humility repair those bridges. Words of gratitude make using the bridges more enjoyable and enriching.
God spoke creation into being, and God's Word-made-flesh came to save us. There is power in speaking.
We all have a different idea about what has caused the decline in our denomination over the last few decades, but one thing we know for sure: When Christians fight and hurl harsh words at each other, people don't want to be a part of our church or denomination.
Differences are inevitable -- even over very important things -- but as Christians we have a responsibility to use our words to create and heal, not to divide and tear down one another or our church.
John Wesley said holy conferencing, or coming together toward mutual discernment and direction, is a means of grace. It puts us in position for God to use us for God's purposes.
In the atmosphere of divisiveness that typically rears its head as we approach General Conference, all of us are being called to the means of grace that will position our church for God to use in the years to come.
To that end, "Guidelines for Holy Conferencing -- What God Expects of Us," is given in the spirit of helping us create and build, not tear down and destroy.
The Global Young People's Convocation and Legislative Assembly in January 2007 inspired the Commission on General Conference and the Council of Bishops to offer this slightly revised version of the guidelines for Holy Conferencing.
The Global Young People's version was based on the guidelines for Holy Conferencing that came out of the United Methodist "Dialogue on Theological Diversity" in February 1998. These guidelines are rooted in Paul's admonitions to the early churches, such as the church at Colossae, who, like us, needed to be reminded of how to speak and act in ways that build up rather than tear down.
I guess that makes these Guidelines for Holy Conferencing "Version 4," at least!
The Guidelines help us to rethink the ways in which we speak to each other as we approach General Conference and how we treat each other at General Conference. They clarify the distinction between debating and dialoguing; two words we throw around rather freely without considering their original and theological meanings.
I have a nephew, for instance, who was a hot-shot debater in high school and college. He probably developed his debating skills around the table with his three siblings and two parents, most of whom had competing needs and perspectives at any given moment. His skill at debating will undoubtedly help him in his goal of becoming a lawyer.
But debating is not a critical skill in the life of the church, as much as some of us seek to hone it.
To debate literally means "to batter"-not exactly a spiritual gift. Debate is all about winning (and losing), insisting on the absolute truth of one's own position and then trying to change other people's minds to that position.
Debate isn't open to the possibility that one might not have the full truth, or that the whole group may yet determine "another right answer" or a better way to proceed.
Dialogue, on the other hand, literally means "through words." Dialogue is about building relationships and a sense of trust through sharing and listening, humbly acknowledging that one might not have the whole truth because someone else brings another perspective. Dialogue looks for the strengths in another's position to be able to build on common ground. One's viewpoint and experience are eventually expanded because possibilities are enlarged instead of diminished. Even though it takes time and love to dialogue, it takes even more time in the long run to debate, because that sends us off in opposite directions.
We need to learn to truly dialogue with each other about important issues of life and faith so that we build up the church through our words instead of tear it down through our battles.
Christ came to tear down the "dividing walls of hostility." We United Methodists have now been given a tool through our church, recently tested by our young people, to help us build up and show God's love through our words.
Just as in a good marriage, words are powerful in creating and building love within the church.
Bishop Dyck is the Episcopal leader of the Minnesota Area of the United Methodist Church.