Fitting word to need

In his sermon “Scriptural Christianity,” John Wesley describes the way the message of the gospel needs to be fitted to the particular condition of the people hearing it.

They endeavoured herein to speak to every man severally as he had need. To the careless, to those who lay unconcerned in darkness and in the shadow of death, they thundered, “Awake thou that sleepest; arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.” But to those who were already awakened out of sleep, and groaning under a sense of the wrath of God, their language was, “We have an Advocate with the Father; he is the propitiation for our sins.” Meantime, those who had believed, they provoked to love and to good works; to patient continuance in well-doing; and to abound more and more in that holiness without which no man can see the Lord.

In general, scholarship and writing about Wesley appears to me to miss this aspect of Wesley’s methods. A a student of rhetoric at Oxford, he would have been steeped in the ancient traditions, including the notion that the speech needs to be suited to the audience. I’ve long thought that much of the hay made in academic circles about the “late” Wesley contradicting the “early” Wesley is a misunderstanding. The late Wesley still heartily endorsed the sermons of the early Wesley, even as he wrote sermons aimed at and fitted to the needs of a Methodist movement that was growing and changing.

We can see this acute awareness even in his earlier works. In “Scriptural Christianity,” he notes that the first Christians fitted their message to the audience.

To those who walked in unconcerned darkness, Wesley claimed, they preached “Awake!” To those who were groaning under the weight of their sin, they preached “You have an advocate with the Father.” To those who believed, they preached patient endurance and offered encouragement to continue in love and good works as they expected and anticipated being transformed into the likeness of Christ.

Wesley’s example — in this sermon and elsewhere — chastens me to consider how well I know the spiritual state of those to whom I preach. Do I fit the emphasis of my preaching to the needs of the congregation before me, or do I preach what strikes me as interesting or helpful in the texts I study? Am I preaching “Awake!” too much to congregations in need of encouragement to continue on in holiness, or, more likely, am I offering encouragement to those who are yet asleep?

If we want war, we have it

My favorite blogging DS, Sky McCracken, has added to what is a growing genre of blog posts appealing for more Christian discourse in the midst of our differences. Several other Methodist bloggers have weighed in on this topic recently.

McCracken writes, in part:

If we want war, we already have it. But if we want to be people of peace who truly embrace Jesus – we HAVE to sit with each other. Talk. Build relationships. Pray. Desire to have a heart that is at peace rather than at war. Listen. Quit labeling. Quit looking for “code” words. Long before we had any books on conflict resolution, we had Jesus modeling all of these things.

In my seminary classes, we use a book by Marshall Rosenberg called Nonviolent Communication. In it, he argues for a form of communication that is oriented toward observing facts, naming our own feelings, taking responsibility for them, and making requests of one another. (A one page summary of the model is here.) The goal is not to persuade but to understand. Rosenberg argues that we should put down the tools of persuasion and rhetoric and the seductive power they provide.*

Needless to say, this is not the kind of discourse we often see on the Internet. It may not be a form of communication possible in a disembodied medium like this. But reading the book again this week for class does bring home the contrast between Rosenberg’s ethic and the strategic rationality (to use a term from Jurgen Habermas) that dominates our discourse.

It has me pondering what I might do to change things. Please note, I am intentionally turning my gaze inward here. It is easy to say what everyone else should do. But — as I learned in family systems theory — the only part of the dysfunctional system I can change is myself. And so, I am thinking about that today.


*For what it is worth, I am not giving a blanket endorsement of Rosenberg’s book. His theological base assumes all humans are by nature good and compassionate, and he finds talk of sin and moral guilt life destroying. With some revisions to account for fallen humanity and redemption in Christ, much of what he says is both helpful and instructive, but I do not embrace his theology (largely unstated) or anthropology (explicit from the first sentence).

Feeling mislabeled

Timothy Tennent argues that we have in the United Methodist Church two groups:

What we actually have is a group (however imperfectly) which is committed to historic Christianity. The second group (however imperfectly) is committed to a re-imagined church. One, however flawed, is committed to the recovery and defense of historic Christian orthodoxy. The other, however nice and erudite, has not demonstrated a robust commitment to historic Christian orthodoxy. Thus, we actually have two groups; one orthodox and one heterodox.

As you might imagine, his terms have provoked applause and disagreement. Those who find themselves described as orthodox appreciate that someone is describing their sense of things well. Those described as heterodox are less enthusiastic about his categories.

This happens the other way, too. Some of us are called bigots over doctrine. Others engage in a more subtle kind of labeling that goes like this. “When I was young, I believed what the church taught, but now that I am older and have thought about it more …” Or another variation: “Many thoughtful/intelligent Christians look at these questions and …” These constructions appear to suggest only immature or non-thoughtful people take the opposite position.

Even when all we are trying to do is describe out own position in positive ways, we end up labeling people who disagree with us in negative ways.

Perhaps this is just the price of trying to think and speak clearly.

I suppose the Donatists and Pelagians did not like be called heretics, either. Church of England stalwarts did not like John Wesley going around defining “real” Christians in terms that eliminated most of them from the term.

But is interesting to me that nearly everyone feels that they are being described in inaccurate terms and in ways that are not honoring what they are trying to say. I wonder if this is just the way it is or if there is something that can be done about it.

Death to straw men

United Methodist Internet conversation is plagued by many logical fallacies. We invoke the slippery slope. We appeal to authority. We roll out the band wagon. The one that always comes to my mind first, though, is our rampant use of straw man arguments.

This is so common that it almost appears to be required, as if the Book of Discipline mandated its use.

The moves are simple. First you over simplify or mischaracterize a competing argument. This is setting up the straw man. Then you knock the straw man down, leading to the conclusion that your alternative must be the better argument.

The only solution I know for this problem comes from the counsels of active listening. When we want to describe the position or argument of a person with whom we disagree, we must first ask that person if the argument as we have described it fairly represents what they are trying to argue or say.

Only once we can construct our opponent’s argument in a manner that strikes them as fair should we critique it.

Now, of course, it often happens on the Internet that we cannot engage in the kind of back-and-forth that would allow us to get that kind of acknowledgment. But that should be a goal in all we do.

It is not as fun as knocking down straw men, but it is certainly more in keeping with the law of love.

Getting to yes in the UMC

Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God. (Matthew 5:9)

I’ve been thinking lately of Fisher and Ury’s classic book on negotiation Getting to Yes. It is a book about reaching successful agreements, success being defined in part as an agreement that all parties to the agreement observe. (Here is a summary of the book’s main ideas.)

I know the very thought of negotiation and compromise on the matters that threaten to split our denomination is anathema to many. To both sides of the conflict, it is tantamount to turning away from God’s righteousness.

I understand that. I am exploring these questions, however, as one who is not persuaded that splintering is either God’s desire or the cure for what ails us.

Here is the book summary on the difference between positional and principled bargaining. Which one sounds like us?

Negotiations often take the form of positional bargaining. In positional bargaining each part opens with their position on an issue. The parties then bargain from their separate opening positions to agree on one position. Haggling over a price is a typical example of positional bargaining. Fisher and Ury argue that positional bargaining does not tend to produce good agreements. It is an inefficient means of reaching agreements, and the agreements tend to neglect the parties’ interests. It encourages stubbornness and so tends to harm the parties’ relationship.

Fisher and Ury argue that principled bargaining requires four steps:

  1. separate the people from the problem
  2. focus on interests rather than positions
  3. generate a variety of options before settling on an agreement
  4. insist that the agreement be based on objective criteria

Let’s look briefly at a few parts of that first step: separating people from the problem.

Fisher and Ury argue that a large problem in any negotiation is that people tend identify personally with their position, and so experience any non-favorable response to their issue as a personal attack. This tends to make it very hard to see the issues clearly and to speak about them rationally.

Fisher and Ury highlight three kinds of people problems: perception, emotion, and communication. (Read the summary of the book for a quick take on these.) The bottom line on the first step in the process is summed up nicely on the web page:

Generally the best way to deal with people problems is to prevent them from arising. People problems are less likely to come up if the parties have a good relationship, and think of each other as partners in negotiation rather than as adversaries.

And so, the impasse emerges. Are the two sides in our denominational crisis willing to come together as peacemakers seeking an agreement that speaks to the interests of everyone? Or are we locked in a struggle that both sides can cast only as a competition between angels of light and angels of darkness?

I know and greatly admire individuals on both sides of this conflict. I also am aware of people on both sides who would never be interested in unity. They see unity as a rag of shame when it requires compromise on the principles they hold most dear.

I understand that. But I still want to explore whether it is possible to be peacemakers in the midst of our conflict. Can we enter into a process — if not all of us then some of us — that does not seek to destroy each other but to make peace in the midst of our conflict?

A failure to communicate?

David Watson looks at the United Methodist Church’s main web site. If our mission is making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, he asks, why is that mission so hard to discern from the web site?

Perhaps the public website should take a more evangelistic approach. How about, right up front, a link to the testimonies of people who have accepted Christ and known his transforming power? How about a link to a video called something like, “Why Should I Choose Jesus?” Or perhaps a video, or at least a page, called something like, “Why Does Christ Make A Difference?” Perhaps one could have the option to chat or have a video call with a pastor. Maybe it would be helpful to have something on the basics of Christian belief.