Friday, October 13, 2017

A Tribute--To My Friends Who Popped Popcorn to Watch Annual Council

I have to give my church's General Conference President credit--the long and formal church governance meetings have ceased to be boring under his leadership.  It's been six years since the conflict over ordaining women broke onto center stage again, and church entities first went toe-to-toe on it. I can remember, early on, joking with a friend of mine about watching the meetings online for entertainment.  And yes, popcorn figured into our plans.

But lately, the entertainment value has shifted into a genre I don't watch for fun.  I still tune in, but it feels less like watching a football game, and more like a public execution.  Or maybe it's just a poorly paired boxing match. I see my team put up a fight, but there is no real hope.

This year, of course, we were all a little surprised when Annual Council came out as, essentially, a draw. The action being considered was sent back to a committee to be considered further, and likely returned to the floor next year. Probably all the church was in consternation trying to figure out who won.

And this is my first peace offering: I know my distress over watching is because my team is losing. Sure, I think the refs are biased (the refs are, after all, playing for the other team).  I see unfair calls, but it's the final score that matters most to me.  So when I see my friends on social media popping their own popcorn to cheer for the other team, I need perspective. I need to consider what it feels like to be them.

 I have a terrible truth to share. I don't want it to be true in this case, but I am afraid it must be, and the popcorn is my reminder.  It's this--we are usually closer to our opposition than to anyone else.

This is how I learned that:

A few years ago I was in a, let's say "interpersonal conflict" with another church volunteer.  It was new territory to me--I haven't had many of these before.  We were working together on an event, and it felt like every time there was a conflict, we were on opposite sides.  Actually, we were the opposite sides.  It was starting to feel personal.  While I was sure I was being honest in my opinions, I wondered if she didn't like ideas just because they came from me.

Finally we came to an impasse. There was a certain job we both felt best qualified to do.* We were both getting pressure from different sources to do it.**  It was intense.  For days, I went to bed, and couldn't fall asleep because I was too wound up, and I couldn't stop thinking about it.  I wanted desperately to distract myself.  I woke too early and couldn't get back to sleep.  I had no appetite, but I ate junk food, looking for something to feel happy about.

I felt trapped. I wanted to drop the project--the emotional cost was too high. But I had to fulfill my commitment. So I prayed about it as honestly as I could.  And then I cornered her one evening to suggest a compromise.

She didn't like it.  I could see her anger grow while I talked.  So I wasn't surprised--actually kind of relieved--when she let me have it after I finished. I don't know how long it took--maybe ten minutes. I had to stop myself, over and over, from framing replies in my head, while I listened.  And I'm glad I did, or I would have missed something important.

While she vented her anger, she told me how miserable her life was because of me.  She was having trouble sleeping.  She didn't want to eat.  She was miserable all the time because she couldn't get it out of her head.

I was supposed to feel guilt, or maybe anger, but strangely, I started to feel relief.  Even joy. Finally, FINALLY I was talking to someone who understood me.  She knew--she knew what I was going through. She was still wrong, of course, but I loved her anyway.

We compromised, and I promised I valued her.  But I couldn't really explain my feelings, and I understand if she thought I was faking it to make peace. We certainly didn't start agreeing because of it.  But it changed the way I saw her, and I still love her.

We are closer than we think to our "enemies."  That's good and bad news.

First the bad news. On one side, it means that who goes out and pops popcorn is less about having a purer character, and more about who is winning.  That's what it means to be polarized.  The same things happen to us when we feel pushed into a corner, no matter which corner it is.  We start talking just to our own side.  We let off stress by laughing at a caricature of the other side. We start to give an ear to fear-mongering. Maybe worst of all, we hold a double standard, using the same bad logic we condemn in others. And we justify ourselves because of how bad this image is that we have made of our enemies.

That's the bad news.  But there's good news.  There is someone out there who understand us, even if it is from the opposite side of the mirror. They, too, care enough to get involved.  They, too, feel enough conviction to try. They, too, want the organization or project or cause to succeed.

And they feel the pressure, too. For every fear of a church take-over by the supressive barefoot-and-pregnant crowd, there is someone else insisting it will be taken over by militant, secular, anti-moralists*** The world looks a lot different from the other side of the stand-off.  The problems look different, the proportions are all rearranged.  And I realize, in my saner moments, that if I believed that view of things, I might say the same things, want the same things.

This is what it means to be polarized--the conflict pushes us further and further toward the edges, further and further apart. Until we realized (if we ever do) that the poles bend, and we have come back together, staring at one another through a mirror, opposite but equal.

But that's not where we have to live.  I think there's a path forward for our church, but it isn't out at the edges.

We are a church family.  My experience of being in families says that we don't usually "solve" our arguments.  We live together in spite of them. We make allowances, and we put up with things we don't like, because we still love one another.  Because our relationships aren't based on the arguments, they're based on things we value more, things we have in common.

So this is my tribute to my friends on the other side:  I get it.  Maybe not your convictions, but your experience.  We didn't want to be in this together, but we can't help it.  And it turns out we have a lot more in common than it seems.

It's my hope, too, that we will get a chance to figure that out. I hope we can swim back upstream from the poles to which we've been relegated. I hope we remember how to be family.

For my own part, I intend to practice listening to you, even when I know you're wrong. And maybe we'll get a chance to remember all we agree on, after all.

Come over any time.  We'll pop popcorn.

*This is the most unbiased way I can explain the situation. Rest assured that it felt much more complicated at the time.

**Of course, I didn't know about her pressure then.

***What these people would want with a church, I don't know, but that's really not the point.


  1. So well describes things. I appreciate and value your ability to articulate and think through these times

  2. I've just listened to this 3 part series on the Holy Spirit and am starting to read the accompanying book (a free download). There are no sides in Gods kingdom. The Holy Spirit is poised and ready to fill his church one individual at a time.

  3. In the current conflict, the "sides" are defined by fear and that's always a bad motivation. It causes us to do stupid things to protect ourselves from an often misperceived threat. On the one hand, the anti-women's ordination see the other side as the camel's nose in the tent, behind which will surely come lesbian pastors, gay orgies in the family life center and pulpit-sharing with Catholic priests. Their response is to increase control at the top to reign in the leftist rebellion.

    On the other side we have people who actually studied the Glacier View WO decision and like the study of our policy of congregational segregation in the South, we are convinced it is an issue which can and should be addressed and rectified as much as we can. We see the centralization of power and threats to "discipline" the rebel unions as a threat to the long-standing "unity in diversity" that has been a hallmark of Adventism as we know it.

    Both sides see threats to either scriptural and institutional purity (whatever the Bible Study Conference at GV might have ruled), or to freedom and independence at the congregational level. One side fears corruption; the other side "kingly power".

    Even in trying to define the argument fairly, it's obvious where I come down on the issue. That said, I don't believe it's a two-sided issue. The devil doesn't with to merely divide us. He's trying to fracture the church into warring factions. I'm a conservative on most things, but I agree with women's ordination and the decentralization of power. As near as I can tell I'm part of what I suspect is at least a third group that wants to keep the fearful consequences of creeping perversion and corruption the Ted Wilson faction fears at bay. At the same time we fear the inevitable corruption that follows centralization of power in fewer and fewer hands.

    Jesus promised that the truth would set you free. I don't think we've heard the truth articulated yet - at least not in GC open meetings. As far as I know the only time anyone talked about it openly, they immediately pulled his books off the ABC shelves (or tried to).

  4. I promise you that if anyone got up at Annual Council and instead of hurling Bible texts and EG White quotes (we won't even talk about the irony of that one), they said out loud what they were afraid of, we might get somewhere. Like the Baptists couples who fear taking a shower together because it might lead to dancing, SDAs who fear women's ordination because it might lead to accepting preachers who practice homosexuality or whatever other sexual perversion you can think of, might just hear how ridiculous that sounds. Said out loud like that, it equates women with people who practice sexual perversion. Is that what they're saying? If nothing else, the open acknowledgement of the elephant in the room might just help them get some kind of support from the loyal opposition for protecting the church from that sort of silliness. At the same time, if someone said out loud in open meeting that they objected to Wilson's executive's efforts to take power back from the Unions that was given to them in 1901, a reorganization which was endorsed by the way by Ellen White and insured we moved forward unified in our diversity, perhaps we might talk about how to prevent that.

    Of course, that will never be allowed because it might result in a vote of no-confidence in the power grabbers and they might be asked to resign.

    The devil wishes to obscure the real issues and though even the officially loyal Adventist Today has been highly critical of the Wilson administration's handling of the issue. And Spectrum has all but called for the revolution.

    And the devil smiles.

    It's time to call a spade a spade and drag the whole nasty mess out on the table in public and see if we can't agree on what to do about it so everyone's fears are allayed. I think it's possible. I'm also afraid that those invested on either side won't allow it for fear they'll lose in an open debate.

    Sad for our church. As I said, you can tell which side I'm on by the way I framed this. It's easy to tell which thing I fear the most, so please don't complain. I'm sure anyone who wants to jump on me about this has strong beliefs of their own which they will be unable to fully hide.

    And that's the thing. Instead of hiding our guns, how about we lay them out on the table and have ourselves some real peace talks?

    My comfort is in the prophecy that though we will be challenged as a church, we will win through to the end.

    Yours in hope,

    Tom King