Conversations was not a misleading title for this weekend's event; there were indeed many conversations. Some were enlightening, some challenging, some inspiring, some irritating. I had conversations with people I've known since my first entrance into the RCA in 1999 and people whose names I've never heard. This crazy melange of perspectives and contexts is the RCA, and I was deeply grateful for the value we place in face to face gatherings. Even as we grow and change, we still feel fairly small at times like these, when I realize how rare it is to have such personal access to the leaders of one's denomination, and to be asked to lend our voices to a chorus of witnesses as we try to discern a path that we can travel together, despite all of our differences.
One thing Conversations was not for me, however, was comfortable. I didn't really realize why it was uncomfortable until I shifted into the meetings of the Commission for Women yesterday. The CFW is comfortable for me. I've been serving on it for six years. The work and the people are familiar. More than that, within that group, we speak a common language. Our contexts and experiences are different, but at least in terms of our work together, we share common values. The ways that we speak about God and faith are not identical, but they are relatable. We don't have to do much explaining of terminology or concepts. If we're not entirely on the same page on everything, at least we understand each other. I can speak freely in the way that I do in my daily life and ministry and people get it. I get it when they do the same.
During Conversations, however, this was not true for me. The language used in worship carried a masculine and triumphalist view of God that is just not at all the way we speak and sing about God in my congregation. The majority of my small group spoke about God and faith in a way that I would liken to my experience of speaking German: once upon a time, I spoke it frequently and well, but I am massively out of practice after several years of not speaking it. It wasn't my first language, and I rarely use or encounter it now. When I hear it, it takes me time to wrap my head around it, and my efforts at communicating in it are stiff and limited.
Most of my small group members spoke the language of popular evangelical Christianity. I spent my first formative years as a Christian, in college, speaking that language. It's not entirely foreign to me, but it's not a language I've used for several years. They spoke a lot about reaching the lost and unchurched, leading people to Christ, saving souls, evangelism, and reproducing churches. I can't tell you the last time I've heard any of those phrases in my own context. We talk about community engagement, proclaiming the Gospel in word and action, relational ministry, justice, and revitalizing churches. They refer to God as "Father" and "He" (even the Spirit, which puzzles me). We sing the traditional trinitarian formula in the Doxology and speak it in the Apostles' Creed, but work in some feminine and gender-neutral metaphors as well, and generally avoid overly gendered language for God.
As a result, my experience at Conversations was one of filtering. Filtering what came in, so that I could understand and embrace the parts of that language that communicated things about God and faith that were good and relatable for me and my community. And filtering what came out, so that I could be understood by those who find my classic-Reformed-meets-social-progressive God language just as alien as I find theirs (or more so, since many of them probably don't have as much experience in my world as I have in theirs).
Frankly, it was exhausting, and I don't think I did all that well at either. And since this foreign language was the one used in worship and our large group sessions (along with the corresponding monocultural worship style of loud, leader-focused praise music), I find myself wondering if the language I speak is being phased out of or excluded from the gatherings of the RCA as a whole. I wonder if I will ever again go to a General Synod worship service and hear language that I don't have to filter or translate. And because I don't think it's really good for any of us to remain in pockets of people who share our language and values all the time, I wonder if we can learn to speak "bilingually" to each other?