What makes a conversation 'sacred'?
Written by W. Evan Golder
June - July 2008

Randy Varcho photo.
Experts, pastors weigh in

When God called out to Moses from the midst of the burning bush on Mount Sinai and Moses responded, was that a sacred conversation?

How about when Nathan came to David after he had had Uriah killed and married his wife, Bathsheba? Was that conversation sacred?

What about when Jesus confronted the Samaritan woman at the well, or when Paul explained to Agrippa how he had been changed from persecuting Christians to becoming a believer himself. Were those sacred conversations? On Sunday, May 18, many UCC pastors and congregations responded to the call of UCC General Minister and President John H. Thomas to begin a "sacred conversation" about race.

"Sacred conversations are never easy conversations," Thomas said at a press conference held on April 3 at Trinity UCC in Chicago to announce the call. He spoke on the 40th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s last sermon, preached the night before his assassination in Memphis, Tenn.

"This is especially true when honest talk about race confronts us with a painful past and won't let us ignore the troubles of our present day," Thomas said. "That's why sacred conversations require a readiness to see one another as sacred in spite of our differences, and why the sacred places where these conversations take place need to be respected."
But what makes a conversation "sacred"?
 
God must be present

"A sacred conversation is one where the presence of God is acknowledged," says the Rev. Susan Blain, the UCC's minister for worship, liturgy and spiritual formation.

"It helps a lot if you have an expectation about God's presence," says the Rev. Ruth Garwood, executive director of the UCC Coalition for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns. "God shows up otherwise, but when we're noticing, I find that very helpful."

"I use sacred when God is involved, for sure," says the Rev. Christine Smith, professor of preaching at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities in New Brighton, Minn. "But sacred is different than normal kinds of conversations, because it implies an unusually blessed time. It's holy, so special, unique, respectful, and just that you come away with the sense, 'Gosh, that was a sacred moment.'

"Does it mean that these conversations are blessed by God?" she asks. "I hope so, if things go well. But what if they don't? Sacred doesn't mean no conflict, or no challenging, but that we agree to enter into this dialogue in a respectful, holy way."
 
Created in God's image

"What would a conversation look like if we took seriously the belief that we are all created in God's image?" Smith asks. "What would it mean for us to have this as a fundamental starting place?"

"What makes a conversation sacred is that some intentional effort is involved, that we make the effort to be incredibly aware of the presence of God, and the conversation is held within God's presence," says the Rev. Sidney Fowler, pastor of Hope UCC in Alexandria, Va. "And when that conversation is about race, that reminds me more about who that God is, that God created a diversity of people, all of whom are created in God's image.

"A theological question underlies the idea of having a sacred conversation," he says, "that God is the creator of all races. Any violation of that premise - for example, to look on the other with hatred or bias - is an affront not only to that person but also to God, who created us all."

At a recent board meeting at UCC-related Chicago Theological Seminary, Lee Butler, professor of pastoral care, said that what makes a conversation sacred is that we are all created in the image of God, says the Rev. Susan Thistlethwaite, CTS president.

"I totally agree," Thistlethwaite says. "But I also think that the sacred is a realm where we behave confessionally. Each conversational partner - in terms of us as individuals but also as churches - needs to think through from a confessional perspective where we have failed one another in our responsibility to be the body of Christ.

"We need to recognize that," she says, "because love of God is connected to love of neighbor. It's connected by Jesus, when he was asked, 'Which commandment in the law is the greatest?' and he answered, 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'

"We have to anchor the sacred conversation not only in the God-given worth of every person," she continues, "but also that we are in the most fundamental sense, that is, being the body of Christ, we are part of one another."

"The real strength of calling this a sacred conversation is that we must deal with this theologically," she says. "We have doctrine of God issues, Christological issues, and ecclesiological issues. But in the UCC we tend to do it sociologically. Instead, we will be doing well if we talk with one another as to what our responsibility is toward one another as the body of Christ."

Being intentional about it

"What makes a conversation sacred is when the people in the conversation are open to the work and the power of the Holy Spirit," says the Rev. Lynne Smouse López, pastor of Ainsworth UCC in Portland, Ore.

"If we are being intentional about it, we would pray at the beginning of the conversation, and pray at the end of it, and maybe during it. And we would maintain a prayerful attitude during the conversation."

She cites Ainsworth's Open and Affirming (ONA) process as an example, when the congregation decided to welcome and affirm LGBT persons into its life and leadership.

"We decided to seek consensus rather than voting," she says. "We took time for silence and prayer and for people to speak. People were encouraged to speak from their hearts. At least one person talked about his struggles with the church being labeled an ONA church. He had problems with it, but felt that God was calling the church to do it."

Ruth Garwood has helped many congregations through their ONA processes.

"I don't think sacred moments can be planned," she says, "but I think the opportunities can be created. Some of it is about having enough trust that people can feel vulnerable. Some of it is about being open to experience something unpredictable."

"Whether a conversation is sacred depends on the intentionality and goal of the conversation," says the Rev. Mary Luti of First Church UCC in Cambridge, Mass. "It also needs subject matter that is important and human, and it must be conducted in some way that can be animated by the Spirit."

For the Rev. Dale Bishop, though, pastor of First Congregational UCC in Rhinelander, Wis., the most genuine sacred conversations are the ones that "just happen," ones "where people share deeply."

"We have lots of sacred conversations," he says. "As a pastor, just about every conversation that doesn't have to do with repaving the parking lot is a sacred conversation." How can one tell? "I guess maybe if your heart is touched," he says.
"Sometimes we discover in the midst, or even after the fact, that a conversation has been 'sacred,'" says Susan Blain. "God has been present, transforming and surprising, doing more working in us than we can ask or imagine."

Integrity is key

"When I think of a sacred conversation, the word that comes to mind first is integrity," says the Rev. Arthur Cribbs, pastor of San Marino (Calif.) Congregational UCC. "Integrity speaks to our most authentic voice. It really has to do with a covenant that we make not only to speak our truth but also to listen to the truth of others, to covenant together to speak without fear and to listen without judgment."

"When race is the topic, the invitation to the conversation must include some invitation to be vulnerable," he says, "to take a risk in order to seek solutions to a problem that has been with us so long that it almost defines us as a society. Especially it challenges the church, with 11 o'clock on Sunday being the most segregated hour in America.

"John Thomas' invitation calls us to recognize that we are about to engage an unholy topic in a holy place," he says.

And, says Christine Smith, in the midst of such a conversation, "people need to have the courage to include an analysis of power and privilege. European Americans especially need to be critically clear about their own power and privilege. White persons walk into the room with an 'invisible backpack' of privilege that makes the conversation fundamentally unbalanced from the start.

"We need to listen more and talk less," she says.

"Listening is crucial for any authentic conversation," says Sidney Fowler. "Sacred conversations invite us into the prayers of others, the stories, the worship, as much as each of us stating our position. It's where we hear the longings of the other as much as we hear the position.

"I have what I believe and what I think," he says, "but I have to set that aside for a moment to be open to whatever God may want me to hear or to do to change me. Change is critical. We may be called to repentance or forgiveness or to take a new step. It's a threatening hope. But if we're really open to the other, then something is going to happen."

Sacred equals different?

"If you think about sacred, the opposite is profane," says Dale Bishop. "We've had lots of profane conversations in the public arena, but very few sacred ones. For example, most of cable news is profane conversation."

"I have a bit of a problem with setting out to have a sacred conversation," says Bishop, a former member of the UCC's five-member Collegium of Officers. "When I was in the building (the UCC's Church House in Cleveland), we had many conversations about race. And many sacred ones."

But if he were in the Collegium now, he says he'd "want a little clarity about what is expected" when we call congregations to have sacred conversations.

William McKinney, president of UCC-related Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif., also questions the effort to structure sacred conversations.

"I resist the effort to dichotomize sacred and profane," he says. "That's an artificial distinction. It neglects a deeper theological understanding that doesn't reduce itself to soundbites very well. If God is incarnate, then God is present everywhere and everything is sacred. Otherwise, God somehow isn't here until God is invoked."

Another way of looking at it, he says, is that there are times in life that we set aside to deal in an intense way with conversations that are no less sacred day to day. "Anthropologists call this 'rites of intensification,'" he says, "where we intensify our energy or intention.

"It's the same paradox about Sunday worship," he explains. "It is not as though God is listening any more attentively at 11 o'clock on Sunday morning than at the rest of the week, but that we come together in a more structured way, a more disciplined way, and in a more communal way.

"Intensification means discipline, structure, self-consciousness about who is in the conversation, about intentionality," he says. "At the same time, we're more open to spontaneity, serendipity and surprise."

The bottom line?

So what about all the "sacred conversations" that were begun on May 18 and will continue through the summer and into the fall?

"One of the results of this experience," McKinney says, "is that people may become more aware of the possibility of sacred conversation at any different times in their lives, in the office, in the home, or in the school.

Any conversation at any time is capable of having a sacred quality. It's there. If God is God of all of life, then God is present anywhere."

The Rev. W. Evan Golder is editor emeritus of United Church News.

Learn more @ www.ucc.org/sacred-conversation>

Qualities of a sacred conversation

Conversations on race will be sacred if we...

• Invoke God's presence and wisdom when we gather, reserving time for prayer at opening and closing and whenever anyone in the group feels a need for it.

• Establish safe space with a commitment to mutual respect and Christian love.

• Listen deeply to, and honor, the feelings of anger, pain and joy in those who have been the targets of racism.

• Listen deeply to, and honor, the feelings of shame, fear, and grief in those who are waking up to the reality of racism in our churches, neighborhoods and nation.

• Continue the conversation beyond an exploration of individual feelings, attitudes and behaviors but continue on to examine the realities of cultural and institutional racism.

• Recognize that our deepest common humanity is not grounded in race, religious creed, or national origin but in the extravagantly inclusive love of God.

• Realize that within our common God-given humanity resides a glorious array of colors, cultures, sexualities and beliefs.

• End each conversation with at least one tangible and specific commitment to action on behalf of racial justice in our communities.

• Understand that this conversation is not a one-time event, but a continuing journey.

From "A Pastoral Letter on Racism" by the UCC's Collegium of Officers 

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