About the time I finished college in the early 1980s, the philosopher Marshall Berman published a book entitled “All That is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity.” In it, Berman wrote: “To be modern…is to experience personal and social life as a maelstrom, to find one’s world and oneself in perpetual disintegration and renewal, trouble and anguish, ambiguity and contradiction: to be part of a universe in which all that is solid melts into air.”
Whether you experienced the modern world like that in the 1980s, I don’t know, but this seems an accurate description of life in the world these past months with a pandemic, racial reckoning, denominational turmoil, and socio-political upheaval. It can often feel that all that is solid melts into air.
What do we do when we experience life as a maelstrom? Leadership theorist and author Margaret Wheatley writes that living systems “always and only organize around an identity, a membrane or a boundary…Life cannot be sustained when the boundary becomes rigid. Nor can it generate new capacities and adapt to its environment if the boundary is too open. Too much permeability is as dangerous too much rigidity…Without identity there is no life, no creation, no responsiveness, no continuation, no possibility for evolutionary change” (“Who Do We Choose To Be? Facing Reality, Claiming Leadership, Restoring Sanity,” pages 64-65).
When it seems all that is solid melts into air, being clear about who we are helps us navigate the turbulent waters. I am reminded of how Paul, in working with the chaos that was the Corinthian Jesus community, often called them to focus on essentials, on their core identity: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (I Corinthians 2:2). “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (I Corinthians 13:13).
The Minnesota Conference is seeking to focus on and sharpen its sense of identity. Organizational identity is comprised of mission, vision, and values. Our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Our vision is that every congregation and ministry setting be a place where people are helped to grow in love of God and neighbor, where new people are being reached with the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ, and where work is being done to heal a broken world (grow, reach, heal). Our values are to be rooted in Jesus, grounded in Wesleyan theology, inclusive of all persons, and engaged in the work of justice and reconciliation. This is who we are, and who we say we want to be, for we know there is not perfect congruence between who we are and who we want to be. There is something aspirational about any statement of identity for an organization. In the midst of the maelstrom of pandemic, the search for racial justice, denominational turmoil, and socio-political upheaval, we want and need to focus on our identity—our mission, vision and values.
I think we might also agree that in addition to our identity being partly aspirational, the terms we choose to use are not self-defining. We cannot simply assert our identity, but need to engage in rich conversations about our identity and the terms we use to define our mission, vision, and values.
Rich conversations. The late physicist David Bohm makes an intriguing distinction between “dialogue” and “discussion.” Dialogue comes from Greek words meaning “through the word” or “through the meaning.” Bohm writes: “The picture or image that this derivation suggests is of a stream of meaning flowing among us and through us and between us. This will make possible a flow of meaning in the whole group, out of which may emerge some new understanding” (“On Dialogue,” page 7). Discussion, on the other hand, has the same root as “percussion” and “concussion.” Bohm explains: “It really means to break things up. It emphasizes the idea of analysis, where there may be many points of view, and where everyone is presenting a different one—analyzing and breaking up…Discussion is almost like a ping-pong game, where people are batting the ideas back and forth” (page 7).
Both discussion and dialogue have their place and value. We tend, though, to lean much more heavily into discussion. Dialogue involves a willingness to listen more deeply, to be more open to the voices of others, to discover new ideas and imaginings together.
I think here of John Wesley’s comments on Christian conference: “Are we convinced how important and how difficult it is to order our conversation right? Is it always in grace? Seasoned with salt? Meet to minister grace to the hearers?”
In the midst of the maelstrom of pandemic, the search for racial justice, denominational turmoil, and socio-political upheaval, we need to engage in deep dialogue about our identity, our mission, our vision, and our values. What do we mean by making disciples of Jesus Christ? What should disciples look like? What should be their defining characteristics? How do we help people be so touched by God’s grace and the power of God’s Spirit that those disciple characteristics are formed? What does world transformation look like? Words like justice, reconciliation, peace, and healing come to mind, but what do we mean by these? How do we help people genuinely grow in love of God and neighbor? How can we communicate the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ in ways that are experienced as genuine good news? What are the deep wounds in our world in need of healing? How do we stay rooted in Jesus and what are the core qualities of this Jesus in whom we are to stay rooted? What are the central ideas in Wesleyan theology? What do we mean by inclusion and what does it look like? What changes might inclusion ask of us? What does justice ask of us, and reconciliation require of us?
In the coming months, we want to focus on our identity and on questions such as these. Each of our congregations would be well-served by engaging in deep dialogue around questions of identity. As a conference, we want to provide tools for initiating in and engaging in such conversations. The maelstrom is not about to end. The world may often still feel as if all that is solid melts into air. Yet we make our way with Jesus, the way-maker, as we focus on our identity, our mission, our vision, our values.
I’m on this joyful journey with you in the midst of the maelstrom.
P.S. As I was preparing this reflection, new information is coming out about the Delta variant of the coronavirus. It spreads more easily than previous variants. It can be spread by those who have been vaccinated but are infected and asymptomatic. For those unvaccinated, the health impacts seem more severe. If you have not yet received a COVID vaccination, please do so. As you gather together indoors, make sure masks are available and encouraged. While we have found powerful ways to stay connected using technology, we all want to be able to gather together more freely in-person without concern for profound health risks. I am not sure we will be able to capture the nuances of this situation with our previous color-coded plan. What I ask is that you continue to pay attention to developments in your community—vaccination rates, the spread of the Delta variant and other case rates, and respond accordingly, so as to promote public health, foster for the common good, and care for others. Thank you.
Bishop David Bard is interim bishop for the Minnesota Conference. He also serves as resident bishop for the Michigan Conference.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church