[Personal Note from Craig: this blog post is different for this one time…with some reflections on my practice as a United Methodist pastor…and some visions from those experiences for energized and energizing public engagement in the next few, critical years in our country and in our world. Below you will see the reflections I shared this week with my colleagues as I formally retired from active ministry.]
My reflections on my 30 years plus in ministry led me through a myriad of different places, people and events to one, central image in human experience…tears. Yes, my most meaningful contributions in parish and connectional ministry involved tears…first, tears of sadness, frustration, loss, grief and fear…and then tears of joy, understanding, healing, renewed purpose and new life. Yes, I’m talking about real tears…many times heart-wrenching sobbing…at the tragedies in life. Yes, I’m also talking about real tears when joy replaced sorrow, because they knew that I knew what they’d been through. Tears…grace-filled tears!
In my extensive disaster response ministry in our conference, in UMCOR projects and as an organizing consultant with Church World Service, my first conversations on-site with natural disaster survivors always started the same way…“Tell me your story”…and tears would flow as their personal and community tragedy was shared. But then…after the months and sometimes years of working with local religious community leaders in their recovery projects, my concluding conversations on-site also started the same way…“Tell me your story”…and tears would flow every time as they told in real-world, human terms how God’s grace had literally saved and transformed lives. Tears…grace-filled tears!
On behalf of UMCOR and the World Council of Churches…my wife, Carole, and I went to Africa University to initiate their outreach program in the area of disaster response, specifically for the African continent. Carole took her extensive experience in community development and group facilitation, and I took my experience in disaster response…together, we conducted a 6-week workshop with 25 participants from councils of churches from every region of Africa. As we stepped through our workshop, we created a number of small- and large-group opportunities for participants to tell their stories, and the stories of their own national tragedies…and tears would flow. And then…when our work together was done, our participants shared how they intended to add new vitality to their work…and tears of joy flowed. Tears…grace-filled tears!
In long-term, parish ministry…grace-filled tears flowed. In short-term, interim ministry…grace-filled tears flowed. As a police chaplain…grace-filled tears flowed. In community organizing ministries…grace-filled tears flowed. In counseling with parishioners and neighborhood residents…grace-filled tears flowed. In retrospect, I realize that I consistently positioned myself to experience the tears of sadness and despair of many different people through the years…and, in doing so, I also positioned myself to experience an incredibly rich outpouring of grace-filled tears.
Upon retirement from parish and connectional ministry, I can offer this simple reflection for anyone who might be interested. If you want a grace-filled ministry, follow the tears. Where you see tears of sadness, listen carefully to that unique story…and then do what you can to respond with care, hope and love. Where you see tears of joy and transformation, find out how God’s grace moved in that situation…so others might discover similar blessings. In good times and in difficult times…follow the tears.
[And now…some specific reflections on dialogue and deliberation below]
So…it’s time to turn the page. Carole and I will be retiring together…and we plan to look for projects where we can make a positive impact. Friends…there are many tears of sadness and despair these days…in our neighborhoods, cities, counties and states. Severe local governmental budget cuts will continue to cause increasing levels of fear and uncertainty…and a sense of powerlessness in our neighborhoods and communities. This is a perfect time for dynamic and innovative development in dialogue and deliberation as a creeping disaster threatens the lives and welfare of our immediate neighbors.
The next 5 years will be critical in locally-focused public engagement and advocacy through non-partisan, community conversations across the country and even around the world. But…the values and themes that emerge from these local conversations need also to be networked effectively through online media…some of which hasn’t even been imagined yet. The scale and complexity of our deliberative mandate is both mind-boggling and frightening…but it’s also the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced, and that makes it energizing as well!
In dialogue and deliberation, we’ve discovered the power of a personal stake in a systemic public dilemma. People who have their own ‘story to tell’ as a part of a deliberative conversation have more than an opinion about a problem…they have an interest in finding a solution!
So…as I have done many times in disaster situations, I believe it’s essential to say to our neighbors, “Tell me your story.” But, when we open this door, we need to be ready for some emotions to bubble up…as people share their frustrations, fears, anger, and sense of powerlessness. My feelings and my experience in deliberation tell me something important about effective public decision-making…to hear the most poignant voices on an issue…follow the tears. Those voices will tell us essential information about the kinds of solutions we need to create…solutions everyone can live with…solutions that may even bring some tears of joy!