Monday, March 21, 2016

It's Late. It's Late. But not too late... for kindness?

Was listening to internet radio when unexpectedly this song came on...

It's not exactly one of Queen's bigger songs. I only know it because it's on "News of the World", which was the first "album" I ever bought with my own money, album being in parenthesis because I actually bought an 8-track tape (millennials, ask your parents). I'm sure as a kid I made the purchase solely for "We Will Rock You" and "We Are the Champions" but 8-Tracks didn't rewind or fast forward (at least mine didn't), so I'd just listen to the rest of the album passively til it came back around to those two songs.

Now let me say this... I really liked those two songs, so I heard the rest of that album plenty. Songs like "Sheer Heart Attack",  "Get Down, Make Love", and "All Dead. All Dead (a very sad song written by Brian May about the death of his cat) are imprinted on my brain.

(And yes, my parents let me listen to a song like "Get Down. Make Love". It was the seventies, baby! But I digress....)

Despite the hundreds of times I'd heard "It's Late" I never paid much attention to the lyrics, so I looked them up. They were written by Brian May supposedly with the idea that it's a three-act scene or something (I don't know... Wikipedia did it's best to explain) with two different women, one whom the protagonist is in a long-term relationship with, and another who he takes consolation in when the long-term relationship seems to be on the rocks.

(Once again, it was the seventies)

But putting that all aside, this is a tune about a couple who are having trouble holding a relationship together.

The way you love me
Is the sweetest love around
But after all this time
The more I'm trying
The more I seem to let you down, yes
Now you tell me you're leaving
And I just can't believe it's true
Oh, you know that I can love you
Though I know I can't be true
Oh, you made me love you
Don't tell me that we're through

It's late - mmm, and it's driving me so mad
It's late - yes I know, but don't try and tell me that it's
Too late - save our love you can't turn out the light
So late - I've been wrong but I'll learn to be right
It's late - It's late - It's late
But not too late

Pretty sad lyrics. Anybody who has had trouble in their relationship or marriage can relate. These lyrics paint an accurate picture of everything going on in the moment when two people are on the verge of wondering whether or not their love is going to survive. There's a lot of questioning the intentions of each other. A lot of begging and pleading to keep the relationship going, while simultaneously wondering if the investment needed to be made will save the relationship (or even worth making). A lot of guilt and anger at yourself, or your partner, or both for not having made better choices. And there's sadness. Sadness that can only come when something that at one time was so alive, so good, is now in real trouble... or even done.

Years ago I came across an article about a study The Gottman Institute did seeking to define the key factor in marital success. Not surprisingly, the researchers found that couples who initially respond positively toward one another were more likely to pick up on cues that enabled them to relate better over the long term, than those couples who tended toward a "fight or flight" response geared to manipulate control in the relationship. As the article states simply....

"People who give their partner the cold shoulder — deliberately ignoring the partner or responding minimally — damage the relationship by making their partner feel worthless and invisible, as if they’re not there, not valued. And people who treat their partners with contempt and criticize them not only kill the love in the relationship, but they also kill their partner's ability to fight off viruses and cancers. Being mean is the death knell of relationships." 

In short, the most important trait in a healthy marriage according to Gottman is kindness. Marriage partners who seek to be kind to one another tend to fair better than those who aren't. What's more Gottman goes further in stating that the key to kindness is the way you think about it. 

"You can think about (kindness) as a fixed trait: either you have it or you don’t. Or you could think of kindness as a muscle. In some people, that muscle is naturally stronger than in others, but it can grow stronger in everyone with exercise. (Those who navigate marriage successfully) tend to think about kindness as a muscle. They know that they have to exercise it to keep it in shape. They know, in other words, that a good relationship requires sustained hard work."

The most successful marriages are ones where those involved seek to not just show kindness, but actively work to become increasingly more kind. I think that's good news for any couple who find themselves in a difficult marriage, or in a good one they seek to improve. The way out and up from where you both are is to begin exercising "kindness muscles". Gottman gives a number of examples of practical ways to do this:
  • Offer small acts of generosity 
  • Be generous in regards to your spouse's intentions
  • Seek every opportunity to share and celebrate your partner's joy
While I see the direct application of Gottman's work in marriages, I have hope that if those of us who are United Methodists took his advice, we might be able to fare better in the future than we are now in terms of the fortunes of our local church, and the future of the denomination.

At the local church level, if a church in decline is looking to turn it's fortunes around, or a church doing pretty good is looking to do better, figuring out ways to begin exercising "kindness muscles" is the way to go.  I'd gather, for example, that at the heart of "Missional Christianity" (which are buzzwords denominational leaders have become so fond of and yet unable to really define) is the intentional collective exercising of "kindness muscles". To become so attuned to being kind toward others that it becomes instinctual and automatic. Kindness not defined by who is or isn't or might become "a member" of the church, but rather the church being kind to one all whom they encounter. That seems to be heart of the "missional movement". Given that Jesus called us to love each other, as an expression of our love for the Lord, this makes sense.

To think about this further, in the life of the denomination beyond the local church, I wonder if the vitriol we've spewed against one another has been so great for so long that we've forgotten how to be kind to one another? Kindness, it seems, has taken a backseat as the caucuses representing the polar ends of the denomination seek to destroy each other.

Progressives, as an example, hear evangelicals talk about "loving the sinner and hating the sin" and just roll their eyes. There have been far too many examples of "love" which resulted in rejection and expulsion on the part of evangelicals particularly toward LGBTQ persons for progressives to take that rhetoric seriously.

I had one of these experiences at an event recently sponsored by our conference where there were two presentations by two opposing speakers regarding scripture and homosexuality. The evangelical presenter laid out what was essentially a hard-core-take-no-prisoners perspective that left little, if any, hope both for inclusion now in local church and in the "great hereafter" for LGBTQ persons. Even though he did end his presentation with a "but we're all sinners" and "no sin is greater than another" grace statement, by the time he reached his conclusion the air was out of the room. Those seeking inclusion and those who stand with them were "all out of listen". They had heard it before. The attempt to "soften the blow" seemed to have the opposite effect. It came off as condescending and dishonest. 

On the flip side, I know evangelicals hear progressives talk about following Jesus' lead by welcoming all and wonder what chaos will be introduced into the community if everybody gets to play by their own rules, or at least new rules as a whole we don't all understand. Why, they wonder, if someone points out that we need to have some basic ground rules so we can live peacefully together, and those ground rules have been well-established for centuries, do they get painted as bigots and haters when they attempt to live them out? Since when did trying to be faithful to scripture and what the denomination has determined to be her Discipline warrant being painted as "evil"?

I know that at the same presentation, when the progressive speaker gave her more nuanced argument it seemed to the committed evangelicals in attendance that the "black and white" presentation of the evangelical was a lot easier to understand. The clarity offered by the evangelical is really the trump card when many UM's are presented with the progressive justification for full inclusion. How do you explain these changes in light of the traditional understanding of scripture? How do you explain these new ethics to your children and grandchildren? How do you stand before a congregation that's always more or less unilaterally agreed that the old ways are the right ways, and tell them that they've been wrong and make a change?

Leaning on history and tradition is much easier and understandable than a new reality where behaviors that had never been condoned, now would be. Accusations of "watering down" the Gospel, "trampling on scripture", and an unwillingness to adhere to our mutually agreed upon Discipline create specters of demonizing the "other" and making it impossible for little more than superficial conversation to take place among people who disagree with each other. 

In the end so much time and energy has been invested in the two camps beating on one another it has made their "relationship" so toxic nothing short of Maxie Dunnam and Amy DeLong washing one another's feet at General Conference could begin to move them toward some resolution to even "agree to disagree". Kindness could pave a way forward for all us United Methodists, and begin breaking this stalemate, but I'm pretty sure the polarized caucuses won't let that happen.

It will take those of us who believe unity isn't uniformity, but rather meeting the demands of sacrificial love toward all, to stand up, speak out, and work toward keeping our denomination together.

Just to go ahead and show my hand, I believe that the only role those of us who are sympathetic toward full inclusion, but also realize that there is wisdom in moving deliberately and wisely so as to not too quickly throw out church tradition is to advocate following the advise of Gamaliel. Create a pathway where folks willing to prop the door wide open can do so, and wait and see what the Lord does, or doesn't do, with their work at least for a season. We also need to simultaneously stand for the committed traditionalist and allow them to live out the Discipline as it's been understood historically until such a time where we can see if in this new arrangement we can continue to live together, or seek a peaceful separation.

In any event, we have to keep encouraging those diametrically opposed to show a little grace to one another, even if they vehemently disagree. Evangelicals need to love the LGBTQ much more sincerely than many of them have been willing to do so historically. Progressives, while not moving off of their sincere commitment to include all, need to concede that you can't legislate into existence something that generally takes personal relationships and loving conversations to change.

We need to stand for unity, and not as some critics state just for unity's sake. But rather unity seeking in love to call all standing at every point of the theological spectrum to raise their own bar of personal holiness, so we might have great capacity for both grace and justice. Unity rooted not in uniform understanding of a few particular points of church tradition, or a disdain for those who have been "oppressors", but unity which seeks to live out the Great Commandment, the Great Commission, and Great Requirement - to love justice, offer mercy, and walk in humility in the presence of the Lord - with the intent that al of us begin acting more like servant leaders in the footsteps of Jesus Christ in all of our unique, yet necessary, expressions.

Unity which makes us a true light of the world. Not a taillight burning dimly as an afterthought, or a flashlight used for interrogation, but a beacon of hope for all people. People who know that in the storm, there is a port, and that port is the United Methodist Church.

In any event let's figure out simple ways we can begin exercising those kindness muscles in our personal relationships, local churches, and across the United Methodist connection as we keep making the journey of following Jesus. Cause love is a long road, and we need to be in better shape than we are now if we hope to make a journey that ends with the words "well done, good and faithful servant".   

All the while, please join me in praying that's while it's late... maybe VERY late, it's not too late for a new season of vitality for the people we call Methodists.