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Deepening relationships leads to justice, kindness

Deepening relationships requires listening and much more.

Conference Comments
by Conference MInister
Mike Denton

“To deepen relationships,
do justice,
do acts
of loving kindness and walk humbly with God.”

If you’ve been within hearing distance of a conference event over the last several months, you’ve likely heard this refrain. For those who haven’t, the board adopted these as our conference intentions after the Rev. Courtney Stange Tregear, minister for church vitality, did a series of listening sessions throughout the conference in an effort to uncover what it meant to be a vital church. “Deepen relationships” and Micah 6:8 framed the substance of what she heard.

Living into these intentions has required more listening and, as I’ve used these to frame my own work, I’ve been awed by the depth these frames offer.  Calling them “frames” probably isn’t even fully accurate any more. They’ve become the lenses through which I see our conference and our work together. Each time I think I’ve gone as far as I could with one of these intentions, there’s still another layer that emerges. Recently, I’ve been focusing on one of these phrases in particular.

When I first considered “deepen relationships,” I assumed two things; people want to be reached out to more and want more opportunities to get together. It wasn’t too long after this that, although that was true, it was clear that many people were looking for these gatherings to be somehow substantial and transformative. We just didn’t want to acknowledge that each other existed, we wanted to know and understand something significant about the other people we spent time with.

What’s become even clearer is something that, at first, might seem like it should be obvious. It’s not simply that we want to know and understand something significant about each other but that we have a deep hunger for wanting to be known and understood.  This is different from our commercially encouraged narcissistic compulsion to share significant amounts of information about ourselves. This is more about the sacred, existential impulse that is as important as eating well, sleeping well, creating and praying. It is about more than the accumulation of names and is all about our intertwining recognition of the fullness of life when life is regarded as our collective experience of joy, hope, pain, love, healing, grief, guilt, doubt, faith, awe, etc.

What’s also become clearer is that to live into this will mean we’re swimming against some strong currents and are going to have to help each other a lot. The isolation that many of us in ministry and our various church settings are experiencing is not just a church problem.

Vivek Murthy, former U.S. Surgeon General, wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review about the loneliness epidemic. He cites research that suggests that the numbers of those suffering with loneliness have doubled since the 1980s. At least 40 percent of Americans report that they struggle with this condition. There is evidence that it reduces a person’s lifespan as much as smoking 16 cigarettes a day. Loneliness “is also associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression  and anxiety. At work, loneliness reduces task performance, limits creativity and impairs other aspects of executive function such as reasoning and decision making.” In England, it has become such a growing health concern that the government has established a new position and office to work to address it. Recently, the Center for Disease Control also released a study citing the rise in suicides across the U.S. Among the suggestions to communities seeking to reduce suicide? “Connect people within their communities. Communities can offer programs and events to increase a sense of belonging among residents.”

The stated intention to “deepen relationships” is both a calling for us but also a calling to us to take action in our communities and the world. Deepening relationships and confronting loneliness is as important a call as the calls many of us have answered to feed, clothe and house people. However, the big difference is that the best way to address this loneliness epidemic—maybe more appropriately called a “drought” or “famine”—is by inviting a mutual recognition of loneliness; a mutual need for deepening relationships; a mutual desire to be known.

Beginning to address this requires intent. To start it will require closing our laptops, putting down our phones, taking a deep breath and, with faith and courage, taking a deep breath, reaching out our hand and saying something like this: “Hi! My name is Mike. It is so good to meet you.”

This, my siblings in Christ, may be becoming one of our most important statements of faith.


Pacific Northwest United Church News © Summer 2018


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