Kevin Watson is a fellow Methodist blogger whom I discovered recently. He just did a series on “holy conferencing,” one of several phrases incorrectly attributed to John Wesley which is commonly used in United Methodism today to talk about what I have sometimes called “breathing kingdom,” conversation among people who are surrendered enough to the Holy Spirit that the flow of God’s breath is palpable between them. In the wounded-ness of our embattled Methodist denomination, there’s a longing for this kind of wholesome, living water-filled conversation to replace our cynical arguments and help people with opposing viewpoints to understand one another. The problem I think is that many Methodists see holy conferencing as a means to the end of decision-making and “moving forward.” So I wanted to offer my own experience this week of what seemed like holy conferencing in a completely decision-less context.
First let me provide a little background. Twice a year, I go down to the Virginia Conference’s Blackstone conference and retreat center as part of our provisional ordination process. We engage in workshops, worship, and fellowship with other provisional elders and deacons. Blackstone is kind of an old building with ugly carpeting. The air-conditioning doesn’t always work. It’s not a place like the basilica where I go in downtown DC in which the aesthetics inherently put me in a sacred frame of mind. The other thing is when pastors get together, we kind of let our hair down and have an opportunity to misbehave and vent our frustrations with the only other people in the world who can empathize with being “on” representing God 24/7.
So for the first two years, coming to Blackstone was a time of cynicism for me. I would usually get something out of the workshops, but I was very aloof to the worship. Having been trained in the postmodern deconstruction of grad level literature classes, I unfortunately acquired a tendency to sneer at any sermon or liturgy that’s predictable. So I would hear the messages at Blackstone and I would categorize them in my mind (thus deflating their ability to speak to me). This is the “Don’t let the haters get you down” message or the “Take your daily quiet time” message or the “Jesus is the savior, not you” message, etc.
In any case, my deconstructive frame of reference was basically a form of “immunity” against the Holy Spirit. In addition to my deconstructive mindset about the messages, Satan “immunized” me against the experience of worship because I would see other people really buying into and feeling what I wasn’t, which made me react defensively: “They must be putting on a performance when they act so earnest and close their eyes and put their hands in the air.”
Well God shipwrecked the cynicism I had been bringing to Blackstone this May in the form of a sermon about Pentecost from my friend Beth Anderson. Beth is one of the purest-hearted people I know, which makes her utterly indeconstructible. I don’t remember particular intellectual concepts from her sermon, only that a flood of living water knocked down the wall of my cynicism (at least for a few days; it has a habit of coming back so quickly like the crabgrass in my garden).
So anyhow, this shattering of cynicism was the topic of the “holy conferencing” I experienced on Tuesday with my friend Marci. Our bishop, Young-Jin Cho, had just preached a sermon using the text of Jesus being left behind by his parents in the temple. He asked, “Are you walking with Jesus or do you assume that Jesus is walking with you?” The blessing of Bishop Cho is that he speaks a beautiful, pure word that is often very simple, confounding the intellectual snob in me. It may not be puzzling in the way that I like to geek out over, but man, it confronts me in such a gentle, firm way that I cannot talk back to it.
Am I walking with Jesus? Or am I just using Jesus’ words for the philosophical and theological jousting I do to entertain and justify myself? The previous day at the basilica, I’d had a mystical encounter when I decided to gaze at the painting of Jesus in the front of the cathedral. Normally Jesus just looks angry like He’s ready to pour the seven bowls of wrath from Revelation. But I decided I wanted to look at Him deeply, and after I had stared at Him for a few minutes, I can’t explain why I say this, but somehow, I saw tears in Jesus’ right eye. I’ve never experienced anything like this before. And I wanted to know why He was crying.
So then when I went in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament and read my Daily Office, I was given a verse, Psalm 26:7: “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your mercy, remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord.” I decided to memorize it in Hebrew: chatot nourai ufshai al tizcor, k’hasdacha zakar li atah tuvacha adonai. The meaning that the Lord gave me was that I need to be re–membered and made new again. So I started praying the Hebrew over and over again and looking for the youthful transgression that needed to be un-remembered and what needed to replace it. Nothing was revealed for a day.
But then when Bishop Cho asked if we were walking with Jesus, I realized why I had had the vision of Jesus crying in the cathedral: because I wasn’t walking with Him. At the same time, I wasn’t devastated by that news. I was smitten by it, like Zacchaeus who I preached about two weeks ago. Wow, He actually wants to walk with me.
And somehow the way He spoke through Psalm 26:7 was very gentle. He was saying you really don’t have to remember yourself as a cynic, Morgan. Just forget that you’ve always been that way. You don’t have to make fun of everything that’s going on in your head, and tell yourself that nobody else has ingenious epiphanies to offer in their preaching. You don’t have to hide behind your fake, self-satisfied solidarity with the dissidents. You really can just walk away from all that crap and be re-membered as a completely different person according to My mercy and for My goodness’ sake. So the scales fell from my eyes like Paul at Ananias’ house. It was a wonderfully liberating feeling.
Basically all of this was what Marci and I were talking about in a very stimulating conversation that seems like what holy conferencing ought to mean. She shared things from her life too of course, but I want to respect her privacy on my blog. As a result of our conversation, two really cool things happened. We went to a piano in the worship room and together came up with lyrics and chords for a contemporary communion liturgy that I’m still working through. And then later that evening, we had a very powerful time of prayer with several other clergy friends in which we named and repented of several things that had been keeping us from living in the breath of God.
Normally at Blackstone, I go out at night and basically turn into a completely worldly person in my attitude and conversation. But Tuesday night, I couldn’t go out. It wasn’t because I felt guilty. I just didn’t want the sweetness in which I was walking to evaporate so that I would be back in the world where everything is lame and something to make a joke about. I don’t know how to say this without completely weirding some people out. But the feeling I had about spending all night with Jesus writing a love song about feasting on His body was the same kind of erotic giddiness I felt about girls in middle school. So I had to sit with Him at the piano for at least four hours.
It wasn’t that I felt I should stay in the conference building with the ugly carpet and the broken-down air-conditioning and do something appropriate like pray or read my Bible. It was more like the aching to be with a lover. Eros is a very strange thing, and I don’t think it’s wrong for it to be directed at God. I think that people today have a very impoverished experience of eros, especially because of the devastating problem of pornography and the objectification of sex into a consumer good, which makes it about as erotic as defecation. Mystical ecstatic encounters with Christ, on the other hand, are about the steamiest form of eros that you can experience.
So when I think about holy conferencing, I think about the strange and wonderful conversations in which we struggle to articulate our wonder at the ways of God. I don’t think holy conferencing has a thing to do with decisions. If we’re talking about decisions, then the sweetness has evaporated and it’s stopped being holy conferencing. Holy conferencing is about listening carefully to God together, which is more than just reading the Bible and the Book of Discipline to come up with propositional rational things to say about decisions that we need to make. Listening carefully to God is about being seduced by Him.
The point of holy conferencing is not to have a clear understanding and appreciation of our respective viewpoints so that we can agree to disagree respectfully, or whatever other high-minded-sounding rationalist phrase we want to string together. The point of holy conferencing is to be smitten by what the Spirit is breathing through each of us. Its purpose is to make us giddy with the realization that God really is churning up fabulous mischievous foolishness all around us.
What the Spirit gave me from my friend Beth back in May and then Bishop Cho and Marci on Tuesday was then spilled over in two conversations today on Thursday with my friends Kelly and Megan, which were also holy conferencing. They both walked away in a different spirit than the one with which they arrived, and it’s not because I gave them anything. It’s because the Spirit colonized me and jumped into them and will hopefully jump from them to somebody else.
As Kevin Watson shared in his blog, Wesley never talked about holy conferencing, since he used the term “Christian conference.” Watson shares that “Christian conference” was “honest, direct, piercing conversation with other Christians that was intended to help the participants grow in holiness.” The only thing that makes me bristle a little about that is that it sounds like a “Big Brother” sin management project in a way that it doesn’t have to be. It sounds like a paradigm in which people would try to prove themselves through their graveness and austerity instead of letting themselves be enraptured by God’s signs of wonders.
Of course, being intentionally accountable to one another and confessing our sins aloud is important. But it’s too easy for that to remain in the rationalist sphere and never touch our hearts, another means by which I’ve experienced Satan’s “immunization” against the breath of God. What if God wants us to remember a different, deeper self-identity within us, according to His mercy and for the sake of His goodness, a self that hasn’t lost its sense of desire to dehumanizing sins and idols? What if what we need is more foolish, erotic God-talk to loosen our grip on the idols and destructive habits, so that we can forget the way that we’ve always been and start fresh? That’s why I would define “holy conferencing” (a phrase without legitimate historical antecedent whose definition is thus fair game for poets like me😉 ) as the passing of the Spirit through the enjoyment of signs and wonders.
People who have enjoyed the signs and wonders of God together can more organically talk about the sins they want to crucify out of themselves, because they are eager to throw off the old clothing and put on Christ. It also makes decision-making a completely different phenomenon because you’re not just “cognizant of where the other person is coming from” on a rationalist level. You have shared in the utterly un-abstract, erotic love of God together and seen each others’ hearts.
The people who make my heart rich with love for them are those who have loved God together with me, not just comrades at arms or conversation partners or colleagues, but fellow lovers in the eros and not just agape sense of the word. My two priorities in sharing decision-making with a person who has truly reached that level of intimacy with my heart are to make sure that we are listening attentively to God and to make sure that I am listening attentively to the other person. The point really isn’t to make decisions anyway; the point is to let God take over our hearts.