In ever-rarer moments, the cameras turn in our direction and the world gets a glimpse of us. The pope, being the pope, gets airtime and, thanks be to God, those outside church sanctuaries see a religious leader walking through prisons and washing feet. More often, the media is fascinated by the lone follower yelling judgment in the aisles of a Target or a small band of folks with hateful signs protesting funerals. During election seasons, the news reports on pastors and politicians on the same stage, each wanting to rub off on the other. Our branch of the vine is mostly uninteresting to reporters; we are, perhaps, too much in the main to be noteworthy. But even we get a glimpse from the networks every two years. Mostly when we talk about issues of sexuality. Mostly when we are fighting with one another. That’s attention getting, apparently. It is the train wreck that can’t be ignored. An intriguing, if unpleasant, oddity.
There are editors at news desks around our nation that at least know the Presbyterians are about to gather in Portland. There is some reporter, like the one given the city council meeting beat, who has been told to keep an eye out for anything worthy of lifting up to a mostly uninterested audience. Some reporter, likely a newbie, has been told to “look for the headline.” It isn’t so obvious this go-round what that headline will be. It won’t be ordination standards or marriage, so that reporter is going to have to look more closely. Like it or not, it won’t be Belhar or changes in the Directory for Worship. Those things take too much effort to unpack for people unfamiliar with our theology or polity. It might be something about the Middle East or fossil fuels. Maybe. It won’t be about decisions made about the structure of the PC(USA). There might be a line or two about new leadership elected, even though many will have no clue what a moderator or a stated clerk is. I worry the headline will read: “Presbyterians at a standoff over apologizing.” Imagine how that would play to those already rolling their eyes at institutional religion.
I hope that when the world gets a sideways look at us when we converge on Portland, I hope, they are struck not so much by what is decided but by how we come to make those decisions. At first, no one on the religious beat will take notice. Yes, those churchy people prayed and had worship and studied the Bible. That’s what they do, after all. Snore. But when the temperature gets turned up and people start going to the microphones and what comes out of their mouths isn’t condemnation or anger or accusation, but gentleness, humility, hope and, dare I say it, love for one another, that poor soul assigned to cover us might begin to pay attention. If we were to be seen not politicking but praying, it might feel different – even to those who’ve never been to such a gathering. If we were, in the words of Philippians, to think and speak and act in ways that are true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable and excellent, I believe our gathering would be so radically different than most national religious gatherings that we might make headlines. We might make headlines in ways that give the world not a glimpse of a religious institution, but a sighting of the living, breathing Body of Christ.
I have come to believe to the depth of my being that it isn’t so much what we decide this year as how we go about making those decisions that truly matters. We all know the statistics, the nones and dones, the can’t-be-bothereds and the down-right-disdainfuls. We Christians don’t make headlines in this culture very often and when we do it is more often than not held up as exhibit A, B or Z on our hypocrisy, ineptness or abuse. However, what is sorely lacking right now in our corner of God’s creation are the distinctions of gentleness, looking to the interest of others, forbearance, peace, compassion and agape love. That’s why if we, through the power of the Holy Spirit, are able to exhibit love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, we might make the headlines. The media might notice, the world might notice and, regardless, God will surely notice.