Dialogues cancelled

A Public Letter from the Board of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church, host of “First Tuesday Dialogues” – Feb. 8, 2013:

“This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the LORD of hosts….” – Zechariah 4:6 (NRSV)

In this spirit we at Shepherd of the Hill – the church with the rocking chair – have chosen to cancel the First Tuesday Dialogues previously announced for Feb. 19 and March 5 on Gun Violence in America.

The First Tuesday Dialogues serve a single purpose: examination of critical public issues locally and globally with respectful listening and speaking in the search for common ground and the common good. The program expresses our own Christian tradition (Presbyterian) whose Preliminary Principles of Church Order (adopted in 1789) call us to honor individual conscience and direct us toward kindness and mutual patience.

The First Principle -“God alone is Lord of the conscience…“- upholds “the still, small voice” in the midst of social earthquakes, winds and fires. It requires us to listen. Ours is a tradition that honors dissent. The voice of one may be where the truth lies. The Dialogues are meant to give space for that voice on critical public issues.

The Fifth Principle declares that “There are forms and truths with respect to which people of good character and conscience may differ, and, in all these matters, it is the duty of individuals and of societies to exercise mutual forbearance”  It is our tradition’s answer to Rodney King’s haunting question: Can’t we all just get along?

These historical principles are not only our historical tradition. They represent a daily interpretation of Jesus’ teaching to love our neighbors in the present moment. One can only love God, whom no man or woman has seen, wrote the Apostle Paul, if we love the neighbor we do see.  How we treat the neighbor is how we treat God.

The success of Shepherd of the Hill’s community programs depends upon a wider acceptance of these principles of respectful listening and exchange among individuals in dialogue. They also assume a group small enough to engage each other more personally and thoughtfully.

If numbers were the only measure of success, last Tuesday’s Dialogues event on gun violence featuring Chaska Chief of Police Scott Knight and Carver County Sheriff Jim Olson was a huge success. 138 people attended. The Chapel was filled. I thought perhaps it was Easter!  But it wasn’t Easter. There was tension in the room. The established habit of the Dialogues program – one person speaks at a time without interruption or rebuttal, no clapping, and respectful listening –gave way to a sense of one team versus another. When a woman dared to stand to ask how many people there had lost a loved one to gun violence and proceeded to tell her story of personal tragedy, she was not met with compassion. She was met with shouts that her story was irrelevant. By the time the other voices had been quieted, the woman had finished her story of a horrible tragedy. She deserved better.

We all deserve better than to be shouted down, no matter what our experiences or views are. One first-time visitor who was there to oppose gun control shared his puzzlement over the treatment of the woman. “How could anyone not have compassion for her pain?” he asked. “Everyone should be moved to compassion by her story of personal tragedy, no matter what we think about the Second Amendment.”

America always jeopardizes its promise as a place of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness when might and power rule. To the extent that we fear that we are unsafe, it will be because we have chosen to ignore the wise word to Zerubbabel to live not by might, nor by power, but by God’s spirit reflected in the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Lots of people have asked about the rocking chair on the front lawn. Why is it there? What does it stand for?

After the Amish school room massacre in Pennsylvania several years ago – very much akin to what happened at Sandy Hook – Minnesota Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” aired a commentary called “My Amish Rocker.” It was about a more peaceful, forgiving, and loving way of life, the amazing picture of the Amish buggies clip-clopping their way past the home of the man who had murdered their children, tipping their hats respectfully to the killer’s family, on the way to the funeral of their own slaughtered children. The story on MPR was about my Amish rocking chair, made for me by Jacob Miller of Millersburg, Ohio and the opportunity it gives me to think again about who I am in a violent world.

The chair on Shepherd of the Hill’s lawn is there to invite the world to a different way of life. It reminds passers-by to slow it down. Stop speeding through life on the way to who-knows-where. Take a seat.  Rock a while. Breathe deeply. Get in touch with the deep things of the human spirit. Be quiet and listen, like the Amish, for the still, small voice which, in the end, is the only Voice at all.

15 thoughts on “Dialogues cancelled

  1. Thanks for the reply for your reply to Christina. When I read about the decision not to continue and about the woman who was demeaned by being told her experience was irrelevant, I became extremely angry and once again categoried those people as worthless, unchristian, stupid, etc., etc., etc. Your reply reminded me that it is not for me to judge–the others have a Higher Power and I’m not it.


    • That is the problem, isn’t it? We make ourselves our own Higher Power, and when we do, all hell breaks loose. That tendency is there in ALL humanity. Thank you for sharing. This morning’s Star Tribune has a story featuring Chaska Chief of Police Scott Olson. I’ll post it on the blog soon.


  2. It takes courage to start something like this and it takes wisdom to say when enough is enough. Your post reminds me of Ecclesiastes (chapter 4?) – “a time for every purpose under heaven”


    • Thank you, David. We did what we believed we should do to bring respectful conversation in the aftermath of Newtown and too many other tragedies. We did well Tuesday with a few interruptions. But it was clear that there would be little productive use for more of the same. I DO think that cancelling was the better part of wisdom.


  3. We as a nation have forgotten about why we are and what intolerance and exclucivity do to any community. Abiding diversity is necessary for a democracy. Your exppressed pain is felt by many. What a shame!


    • Karin, I just added the Westminster Abbey video of Dear Lord and Father of Mankind to the Dialogues Cancelled post. “Drop Thy still dews of quietness, Till all our striving cease; Take from our souls the strain and stress, And let our ordered lives confess the beauty of Thy peace. Breathe through the heats of our desire Thy coolness and Thy balm. Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire; Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire, O still, small voice of calm!”


  4. Hello – I was hoping that maybe I could go but I have been preparing for an 8 day road trip with Ted to Durham, NC and back along the east coast – so have had no time to go to these things. I am so sorry it turned out like that – but I think it is an inescapable fact of the times: that people cannot always come together peacefully, even if they have you as a moderator 🙂 Hopefully those who were so negative will feel bad for what happened and work harder on not being so dogmatic in their approach. I’ve lost my temper before over an issue, and felt very bad for arguing instead of discussing… only to do it again. The path of self-improvement is long and hard but I am sure your event helped many people see how inefficient arguing is and how hurtful. It is very courageous of you to tackle such a hot topic and I am sure the ripple effect of your peaceful effort will spread, even if it doesn’t seem that way right now.


    • Actually, the evening for the most part was quite civil. The numbers and the hotness of the topic make it nearly impossible to accomplish the purposes for which we created Dialogues. One concern in cancelling is that the good things that happened Tuesday will be overlooked. We have been asking people to come out for public engagement and they did. For that reason everyone who attended is to be applauded. (They didn’t have an 8 day road trip coming up. Although I didn’t recognize most of the participants, the night wasn’t unruly. But the culture of Dialogues was unfamiliar to many. People rarely come together with those we fear, resent, or by whom we feel threatened. On that score alone Tuesday was a success. Going forward with this topic, however, would serve little useful purpose. The dialogues are meant for people willing to risk talking with others instead of at them. Thanks for your own personal confession 🙂 and thanks for coming by. Always good to hear from you. Hope you have a great trip.


      • Thank you for the long response. I hope to attend some future dialogues for sure – There is so much to learn in life and I am very glad you provide a place for dialogue to be practiced and learning to be done.


  5. I am so sorry to hear this. One has hope that we can have civility in our discussions. Programs like Tuesday Night Dialogues are the opportunity to model a better way. I was sorry to miss Tuesday night. It was the night before my 40th birthday, and the time we had planned to celebrate. There’s a part of me that is now glad. I come from a pro-gun, NRA card-carrying family with passionate views on the need to arm one’s self in the event that government tries to take control. I can only imagine what the “discussion” felt like. Don’t lose heart…


    • Thank you, Emily. I’m working on a piece this morning that won’t be ready for a while on fear. In short, fear was all over the room Tuesday. We are in a national mood of hysteria across all the political lines. It is in times like this that tradition anchors my spirit. Part of that tradition is the great poetry of the church hymnody. Dear Lord and Father of Mankind expresses precisely where I am and where the Session of Shepherd of the Hill was last night in making our decision. I’ll call you this morning for help in getting the letter published in the newspapers of Carver County. Grace and Peace.


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