October 19, 2012

Holy Conversations

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lever reader, connect these dots:

• The message box on my laptop screen warns, “You have elected to print a document with material outside the printable range.”

• I lean forward slightly over the steering wheel, scanning for any possible lane change or allowable right-turn-on-red that will let me shave even seconds off my commute. Truthfully, I need every light to be green this morning to make it to work on time.

• The after-potluck conversation with the deacon has deteriorated into barely civil stares and mutters. He is unalterably convinced of all his arguments: I am immovably fixed in all of mine.

And the answer is . . . .

Margin. That missing ingredient in so many lives, and frequently in mine. Pressed by forces we can barely name, we want to crowd more characters on the page; crowd more miles into less time; make every viewpoint that we hold a sacred, unbending truth.

Sometimes our lack of margin is comically laughable. Even a laudable desire to spare more trees should sometimes surrender to the logic that urges, “Be reasonable: print a second page.”

As overcrowded lives intersect with others, however, the lack of margin grows in seriousness. How many of the “accidents” on our highways—from fender benders to tragic, twisted calamities—stem from our unwise attempts to push every schedule to its breaking point? The roadside crosses mutely testify to the steep price we pay for surrendering our margins.

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In the community of faith our lack of margin manifests itself in hundreds of needless, pointless “church fights” over everything from sanctuary carpet colors to ultra-veganism. When every preference is magically transformed into an irreducible minimum of faith, when every opinion hatched in the morning shower becomes by noon an incontestable “Thus saith the Lord,” we strike at the very heart of discipled Christianity. For the faith that comes from Jesus is inherently a dialogical faith. Heaven’s clear expectation is that the kingdom grows by conversation as much as by proclamation, that the slow and patient processes of talking to each other are what make for true disciples. Let those who say otherwise ask themselves, “Do I really have the patience of the saints?”

If we needed further proof of the vital role that patient dialogue plays in spreading the gospel, we need only look to the Gospel of John. There, in three successive chapters, Jesus lavishes time and attention on a Pharisee (John 3); a Samaritan woman (John 4); and a physically and spiritually paralyzed man beside a pool (John 5). The margin built into His balanced life allowed Him the freedom to linger at a wedding, spend an afternoon with Andrew and John, and, even on the day He rose, go walking for several hours with otherwise-unheralded disciples.

The way forward for an Advent people too easily divided by our differences in culture, language, history, and opinion is also inescapably dialogical, even when good dialogue requires the services of a translator or a mediator. A candid self-examination reminds me that not every preference of mine should be doctrine for my sister. Some ideas, however much I like them, are not central to the faith of Jesus. They must correctly be identified as in the negotiable margins that allow two different individuals to hold a civil conversation, talk about their common truths, and even agree to respectfully differ when necessary. Any faith community in which every opinion is sacralized ceases to be holy—or wholly Christ’s.

We are, dear reader, “called together”—called out of darkness, Babylon, and hate, and called into a community of light and love and holy conversation. This is the hour to renew the covenant that keeps us always talking to the Lord and talking to each other.

Now, go read the pull-quote above. 

Bill Knott is editor of the Adventist Review. This article was published October 18, 2012.