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Many Hugs, Plenty of Tears

When I prayed at the end of my sermon, I stepped down off the little platform where I stand at the front of our sanctuary and walked straight into “the vestry.” One of the great things about sharing space with a Lutheran congregation is the incredible names they give to these rooms. We have a sacristy, a parlour, a nave, and everyone’s favourite: a narthex.

I typically give myself a thirty second breather at the end of the service by walking the music stand that holds my notes into this side room before heading back out to chat with people as they’re leaving the sanctuary. But on this particular morning, I needed more than thirty seconds, so I snuck out the back door and made my way through a narrow hallway, cut through the kitchen, and headed for an empty table near the back of the gymnasium where the final part of our service would take place: Discussion Groups.

(Note: This post is part of an ongoing series called The View From Here. Please follow this link and start reading at the oldest post, Fear and Trembling.)

This is the way our community concludes each week’s gathering, discussing the morning’s sermon over a cup of coffee. The way these groups typically work is that I write questions that draw from the sermon’s content and then someone at each table will pick up the sheet and guide the conversation. At one point, we experimented with having fixed table facilitators, but it was a coordinating nightmare, so for years now, we have gone with a free-flowing system that counts on the people around the table to work together. As you can imagine, each table takes on a life of its own, depending on the mix of people who happen to sit down.

We weren’t comfortable leaving things to chance on this particular morning, though, so a few days earlier, we provided some guidelines and a preview of the discussion questions to our Staff, Board, and a few other leaders, all in the hope that we could keep the conversations moving in a positive direction and reduce any tension that might arise. Here is what we shared with these facilitators:

There are some "unwritten rules" for discussion groups that we always want to keep in mind: showing respect for others, suspending judgment, and listening well.

With this week's hot topic, we want to discourage people from putting stakes in the ground or asking others to do the same (ie. "This is where I stand." or "Where does everybody else stand on this issue?") Our hope is to listen and learn, and stakes only serve to set up barriers to genuine conversation. There will be time for sharing our stories in the weeks to come, but ideally not during such a brief discussion time.

People might get emotional, and that's okay. What we want to do is discourage emotion from being directed at others.

I will be doing my best to set things up for some healthy conversation, but we're also asking people to be patient and walk out the process together, so there may be some anxiety around that, where people want to know answers now or want to have their voice heard. Let's just do our best to remind everyone that a conversation of this significance deserves more time and attention than we can give it on a Sunday morning.

On my way through the gym, a young adult stopped me to say that she really appreciated what I had said. She told me that a number of her friends wanted to visit our church and thought this morning would be a good time. She admitted that she was nervous, but in the end, was so proud to be part of a church that could handle a conversation like this in such a healthy way. Okay, I thought, well that was positive. Before I could sit down, the first person arrived at the table, another young adult, and with tears welling up in her eyes, she said something very similar: that she was proud to be part of a church like this. If I had to characterize the early returns, that would be the phrase I heard most frequently: that people were proud to be part of a church that was taking this kind of approach to such a volatile topic. With some encouragement in hand, I sat down at the table and waited for people to arrive.

The next people to sit down were two young women who I did not know personally, but who I had been seeing on Sunday mornings for some time. One of the drawbacks of our morning structure is that people who don’t feel comfortable sitting around a table and talking with strangers often slip out the back door, making it difficult for me to connect with them. While I didn’t even know their names, I knew they were a couple. Something that most people in a congregation wouldn’t be aware of, but that every pastor knows, is that even in the midst of delivering a sermon, we are able to pay attention to a surprising amount of what’s going on in the room around us. And many Sunday mornings, as I had been making eye-contact around the room, I had noticed the way they interacted with one another and knew that they were 'together.'

Well, I thought, this is going to be about as clear an indication as I could get of how my message came across.

I had never seen them join a discussion group before, so I was pretty sure they had intentionally sat down at the same table as me. Once the rest of the seats were filled, we went around the circle, introducing ourselves and responding to the first question. I had included an illustration on the back of the question sheet that asked people to “pick a pepper” that describes just how “hot” this topic is for them. (I pulled the image from online and there was even a little disclaimer at the bottom of the page, as if the illustration was made just for us: “No matter your flavor preference, there is a spot on the heat scale for you!”) I thought this was an important way for us to start our discussion, acknowledging how much or how little we care about what we’re talking about.

The couple introduced themselves and shared the news that they were engaged to be married in three months’ time. I’m not sure how everyone else around the table was feeling, but I was grateful for the vulnerability they showed and for their willingness to engage directly in the conversation instead of slipping out and leaving us without their unique perspectives. They also shared that, while they had been attending for some time, they had actually been away for a while recently after hearing some offensive comments which left them feeling that maybe this wasn’t a place they were welcome after all. But they decided to try again and here they were, right in the thick of it all. It was a huge relief for me to hear them reflect on the morning in such a positive way, and to listen to the way that others at the table interacted back and forth with them and with one another. While a running commentary on the entire conversation would be too much to share, here are the questions we used to guide this part of our service, which will provide a sense for what we were hoping to accomplish during the early moments of this journey we had launched ourselves out on:

This morning, we looked at how our Elevation community is very much united around our Core Beliefs, but more diverse when it comes to questions around homosexuality. Generally speaking, how comfortable are you when it comes to this kind of diversity in your church? In other words, how important (or unimportant) is it to you that we align across the board, and not just on our Core Beliefs?

Think about your past church experiences. Have you witnessed or maybe even responded personally to questions around same-sex attraction in a way that has been divisive or otherwise unhealthy? Do you have any lingering regrets or resentments?

This morning, we talked about the need to grow in our collective understanding about the different ways that people in our congregation approach this theme. If you’re open to it, have your group’s facilitator write down one thing you would like to learn more about as we continue this conversation in the weeks to come. (eg. “I would like to hear from someone who has a close friend who is LGBT” or “I want to understand how people can read the Bible so differently than me”)

In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “I must confess that I am not afraid of the word ‘tension.’ I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.” While ‘tension’ may not have scared King, the waters we’re rowing out into are likely already stirring up a variety of emotions, including fear for some. Is there a dominant emotion that you are feeling this morning?

I stayed much longer after the service than I usually do, which was to be expected. Many hugs, plenty of tears, but also countless question marks as people walked by, leaving me wondering what was running through their minds. Are they not talking to me because they’re upset? Then I would talk myself down and remind myself that they’re probably just in a hurry to gather up their kids and get home for lunch. Conversation after conversation, most people expressed some version of how grateful they felt to be part of a community that was willing to walk this path together and to focus on what mattered most, allowing for our differences in belief to be expressed and not discouraged or shut out entirely.

I engaged with one couple in their sixties who were standing off to the side and didn’t appear to be in a positive state of mind. They have been faithful members of our church for years and have been such an encouragement to me personally, both in their commitment to praying for me and in sharing about the ways that God was stretching and challenging them in their faith. I can’t remember what I said, but I wanted to engage them and let them know that, even if they chose not to sit at a table, it was important for them to process what they were thinking and feeling. The wife replied, “Well, maybe it’s too early to ask this, but should we assume that what Eric shared this morning is now the position of the church?”

It was an honest question, and it pulled me back a bit from the overly positive reactions I had been receiving to that point. I tried not to react out of turn and reminded them of the quote I had read prior to his story, that listening to someone does not mean that we agree with them, and that, no, this is not the new position of our church. It was a stark reminder to me of how difficult it is to communicate clearly about such a nuanced theme. There was fear in their question, and as I would learn later, they were not alone in their concern that simply by having Eric share his story and his affirming position, we had made a statement about where our church was going.

The last conversation I had that morning was with a woman who was very thankful for the way we were approaching things. At the same time, I was well aware that her parents, who were also members of our community, would not likely be so receptive and may even have significant concerns with my decision to avoid a carte-blanche denunciation of same-sex relationships. I was just about the last person to leave the building, and since Melissa had already left with the kids, the silence of the drive home made the whole morning seem like a dream. Did this actually happen? Have we really and truly crossed this bridge?

As soon as I walked in the door, my oldest son discovered that he had misread his work schedule and needed someone to drive him in right away. While part of me wanted to just collapse on the couch, I offered to take him, and actually enjoyed the extra time to myself, listening to worship music as I drove back across town. After lunch and a debrief with my wife, the rest of the family went to the mall while I crashed in front of the television and watched a movie that I knew wouldn’t require much engagement of either my brain or my heart.

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