Who Will We Choose to Be?

January 1st, 2020
This article is featured in the The Future of Methodism (Feb/Mar/Apr 2020) issue of Circuit Rider

Many have said that we are in untenable times. Perhaps it has never been so true. Yet, I have asked myself more than once, “How did we get here?”

In a recent meeting a similar question was asked and someone turned to the prophet Haggai. You could tell by the looks on the faces of those around the table that many did not know who Haggai was nor did they know Haggai was actually a book in the Bible. To be fair, it is an obscure and short text that is hard to find; most people probably have to look it up in the Table of Contents of their favorite Bible to locate it. Just two short chapters sandwiched between Zephaniah and Zechariah, it’s easy to miss.

It is around 520 BCE. It has been better than fifty years and the temple is not yet rebuilt. I am certain that some who began the journey were no longer alive, others had little memory of the events of the past or had to rely on the memory of others. Many notables had been involved: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and others and still the temple remained a pile of rubble. (Sound familiar?) Like many of us today, those in Haggai’s time were probably asking, “How did we get here?”

The late Timothy F. Simpson wrote, “As it was with Haggai, the real test of leadership is not necessarily the capacity to motivate people to action, but rather to keep them fixed on the same goal when it becomes clear that the rhetoric that moved them in the first place bears little resemblance to the actual situation in which they have to act.”[1]

Perhaps our current situation is untenable because we have forgotten how we got here. The situation in which we have to act bears little resemblance to what got us here in the first place. We have forgotten what is at stake should The United Methodist Church divide, dissolve or splinter.

We have forgotten that which has shaped us. We are filled with communities that have been and continue to be enriched day after day by spiritual awakening and warmed hearts. We have experienced firsthand prevenient grace that accompanies us as we move on to perfection.

We have been shaped by our history of justice and mercy. We must never forget the fight for the ordination of women. The impact countless servants have had in reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS has been heroic. Remember Nothing But Nets? Imagine No Malaria? The creation of The Advance? The sending of missionaries from everywhere to everywhere? The establishment of Africa University?

We have forgotten who we are and what has shaped and formed us into the people we are called to be. The mission of the church, to make disciples for the transformation of the world, has been lost in the rhetoric, in the creation of plans, in the conversations, mediations and back room deal-making. We have lost a sense of who we are and who we are called to be.

Many current plans and proposals set to appear at General Conference 2020 call for separation, disaffiliation and dissolution by different names. These plans call for the division of assets like we would deal cards at last week’s Bridge Club or a kid’s version of Go Fish. All the while, we continue to cause harm to one another and to ourselves. We continue to alienate the most vulnerable, the very ones who need to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ.

"Seven Levers" by Robert Schnase. Order here: http://bit.ly/2S6KV0A

Our churches in the United States continue to decline in worship attendance, in giving, and in vitality. We have forgotten that it has never been about our buildings or the size and influence of our denomination  it has been about the presence of God in our midst. It is our call to proclaim the Good News and bring people to Jesus.

When we don’t know where we are, where we are going, or what to do, we default to what we know. While no fault of their own, small groups of faithful followers of Jesus are defaulting to what we have always known, writing legislation in hopes that they might have the answer to the best way forward for twelve million United Methodists.

As we enter into General Conference 2020, it is important for delegates to remember that the proposals addressing our impasse on human sexuality are but a handful of hundreds of pieces of legislation that will be before the General Conference. I continue to remind delegates, especially new delegates, that this is not a single issue General Conference.

It is also important to note that the plans many of us have studied and are familiar with are not likely to be in the same shape or form once they survive the legislative committee process.

I pray each day that there will be legislation that stops the harm, that furthers our mission and multiplies the United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible. Maybe that’s too much to ask, but I was consecrated to uphold the unity of the Church and I still hold onto every shred of possibility that unity, as I know it, could occur. But I am not naïve enough to believe that we will all leave Minneapolis and head home happy campers. Some will find the current situation untenable and irreconcilable and will leave the denomination we all love. Can we bless and send one another as we find ways to maintain relationships for missional purposes without devouring one another in the process?

Can we avoid raiding the closets and bank accounts of the boards and agencies who provide support and serve so many  particularly ethnic-minority ministries and the educational, global missional, and daily ministry efforts focused on the most vulnerable communities?

Imagine an action of the General Conference that will stop the harm to our LGBTQ siblings! If we believe we are made in the image of God, how can we possibly say that any of us are incompatible with Christian teaching? Many generations have passed through our doors since the “incompatibility” language was added in 1972. Many more will be called, formed, and sent for Christian ministry in the years to come. Elimination of the incompatibility language is the first step toward restoring our gospel call to love our neighbor in its greatest fullness.

Our tradition has continually been reformed and reshaped as we have taken seriously the contexts in which we preach, teach, and work for justice and mercy. In several regions United Methodists live under civil laws that make it illegal to discriminate against LGBTQ siblings, and yet the church has not reached agreement to make the same commitments. Jesus crossed cultural and religious norms of his time many times. I am a believer who stands on the firm foundation of a Jesus who extended the table in a way that still transcends and upends our norms today. I believe as faithful followers of Jesus that we can live  are indeed called to live  in our differences. I also firmly believe it is difficult and virtually impossible to legislate matters of the heart, leaving us to default to what we know: reliance on rules and structures.

Who will we choose to be?

The General Conference could take action that furthers the mission and advances the nature of Jesus in our midst  loving God, loving neighbor. Unfortunately, it takes many words before the words Jesus or discipleship are even mentioned in many of the current proposals.

How did we get here? Have we forgotten who we are?

Have we forgotten The Nature of Our Theological Task?

It is both critical and constructive.
It is both individual and communal.
It is contextual and incarnational.
It is essentially practical.

It is the ongoing effort to live as Christians in the midst of the complexities of a secular world.

In the final paragraphs of the conclusion of the Theological Task we read:

In this spirit we take up our theological task. We endeavor through the power of the Holy Spirit to understand the love of God given in Jesus Christ. We seek to spread this love abroad. As we see more clearly who we have been, as we understand more fully the needs of the world, as we draw more effectively upon our theological heritage, we will become better equipped to fulfill our calling as the people of God. (BOD, pg. 91)

What is our calling as the people of God?

It is time we decide what matters and settle it in our heart. Who will we choose to be?

Imagine action that will allow us time and space to manage change so as not to crumble that which took the investment of generations to create. While I might be accused of being focused on institutional preservation, the reality is that some institutional preservation is needed. What remains of The United Methodist Church might be smaller; that might be necessary and a good and joyful thing because smaller organizations are more nimble and can be more responsive.

I am not sure what we are afraid of, but I am certainly not afraid to let go of that which stands between our future as United Methodists and unity, between us and loving our neighbor in the broadest sense of the word. I still believe we are capable of reaching people for Jesus Christ in a way that changes the world.

“Do not be afraid” appears over three hundred times in the Bible and Jesus used the phrase over seventy times.

What are we afraid of that cannot be overcome by the power of the Holy Spirit?

Have we forgotten who we are?

Back to Haggai for a moment: “My spirit abides among you; do not fear.Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the Lord of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts. The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts” (Haggai 2:5-9, NRSV).

Is it possible that the actions of the General Conference 2020 could build a church, a United Methodist Church, that shall be greater than the former? I say yes, for things are possible with God. 

But first, we must answer: Who will we choose to be?

[1] Timothy F. Simpson, “The Politics of Managing Expectations: Haggai 1:15b-2:9, politicaltheology.com, Nov. 4, 2013. https://politicaltheology.com/the-politics-of-managing-expectations-haggai-115b-29/

comments powered by Disqus