It was good that I have had a little over a week to reflect on my experiences at the Common Dreams conference in Sydney Australia because I realized flying home a week ago, that there were too many things flashing through my mind to have been cohesive in my thinking and therefore my writing. There were so many things that struck me, inspired me, informed me and yes, touched me during those four days, I knew that I would never be able to do justice to all of them. Let me share a few feelings that are still with me about the grand event.
For one thing I was surprised by the number of people who showed up. Some had traveled long distances. Australia is a big country I learned. I have been part of planning major conferences all over this country for well over twenty years and I have never seen so many enthusiastic, progressive participants in one place at the same time, at least for those progressives who want to work with the tough theological issues. Those of us who were presenters had many conversations over dinner about the reasons for such a remarkable turn out. The suggestions ran from things like “People are religiously oppressed in Australia, especially in Sydney” to “There must not be much to do in this country.” The second one is not true, I can attest.
I was grateful that my keynote address was over early on the second day and that it was so well received. It was fun, I must admit, when so many people come up to me for the rest of the three days and made positive comments on the talk. It opened up all kinds of opportunities for conversations of substance and to hear where people were in their respective spiritual journeys.
I am always pleased when I hear scholars like Brandon Scott, Professor of New Testament at Phillips Theological Seminary and Jesus Seminar Fellow and realize that I still have so much to learn. I get excited when a feminist theologian like Val Webb offers a perspective that forces me to say, “Wow I have never thought about it that way.” And it is always helpful to listen to Bishop Spong and think, “That is a really good way to explain that.”
I was almost giddy, at times, when I discovered that I was not the most radical, liberal, most far out, or “deconstructionist” in the room. (All things I have been called over the years.) It was freeing to be able to speak to a large group of people from the heart and not be concerned that I might say something that was going to upset their religious sensitivities. In fact, I am happy to admit, I found myself being stretched on more than one occasion by a few fine speakers and scholars.
I was encouraged by the number of people, mostly leaders of other progressive organizations, who wanted to find more ways to work together. For example, I was invited to sit in on a conversation with people from four different progressive organizations from Australia who were testing the possibility of forming one organization that would reflect many of the features of TCPC. They saw serious need to help identify those churches that consider themselves progressive and to list those churches so interested parties could find a compatible church based on the TCPC model.
I will never forget was the extraordinary respect and appreciation that so many people had for TCPC. I can not count the number of times speakers went out of their way to mention the TCPC website. Everywhere I went, people thanked me for the work that we do. They mentioned the “wonderful changes” on the website and encouraged us to keep up the “great work.” One woman came up to me with tears in her eyes and said that she would have left the church if her friend had not told her to look up the TCPC website. I had offers from at least ten people from three different countries to collaborate, to support and contribute articles. It definitely charged me up.
But there is one moment in those four days that will always be with me. One evening when we had a break, I mentioned to Brandon Scott that I had not seen the harbor area yet and I did not think I was going to get a chance to do that. He was so appalled and insisted on taking me on a walking tour right then. Before we got out the door his colleague and another Jesus Seminar Fellow Joe Bessler-Northcut and David Felten, co-founder of “Living the Questions” series had joined us. The walk on this rather warm “winter” evening was wonderful and thanks to Brandon’s previous research he was able to make certain we saw some very special sites. The four of us ended up sitting at an outside table having drinks and very serious conversations about the future of Christianity, the church and the meaning of God. It was a lively conversation and I realized how fortunate I was to be with such wonderful, informed people. At one point however, it seemed to me that we were all taking ourselves far too seriously. You see we were surrounded by extraordinary views of the harbor, the famous opera house, beautiful young people simply celebrating because it was Friday night and great music (maybe playing a little too loud). I looked at that these three intelligent, sensitive men, now better friends and decided that we probably weren’t going to figure out who or what God was that night nor could we project what the church of the future might look like just then. Maybe it was time to just be…and I started laughing. Before long, we were all laughing. And it was one more time that I realized that I am extremely lucky to be involved in this transforming movement which allows me to ponder life’s deepest questions with great thinkers.
It was a grand event and my only wish is that you could have all been there to share it with me. Since, Australia was a bit far…I will do my best to maintain that level of energy and enthusiasm about Progressive Christianity that those 1500 people infused in me and continue to help this organization grow and evolve with the rising tide of these crucial times. Now really is a moment in history where I believe we are at a tipping point, can you feel it? Will you help us tip the balance toward love, compassion and openness? I believe we can.