Space oddity

November 8th, 2022

The following article is adapted from Bishop David Bard's episcopal address to the North Central Jurisdictional Conference, offered on November 3, 2022.

Ground control to Major Tom.
Ground control to Major Tom.
Take your protein pills and put your helmet on.
Ground control to Major Tom.
Commencing countdown engines on.
Check ignition and may God’s love be with you.

Do you recognize those lyrics and the name of the song from which they come?

“Space Oddity.”

Space oddity. We find ourselves in an odd space. An episcopal address is rather odd space. Is this a sermon? Is it a lecture? Is it really an address—a formal speech? Yes.   

We find ourselves in odd space and this is not a comment on Fort Wayne or Indiana. And this is 2022 and not 2020. We find ourselves in an odd space historically and politically, less than a week away from the mid-term elections. War rages in Ukraine. The profound polarization in our political system leaves us ill-prepared to deal with long term issues of gun violence, economic inequality, climate change, and racial justice. Deep distrust in our election processes is undermining our democratic system, and our political polarization makes regaining trust difficult.

We find ourselves in an odd space denominationally. We are in this agonizingly protracted disaffiliation period that does not always bring out our best.

Speaking of disaffiliation, the Pew Research Center recently released their report, “Modeling the Future of Religion in America.”  The report projects rates of religious disaffiliation, one form of switching—where the religious identity in which one is raised changes in adulthood—and asserts that if current rates of switching away from Christianity continue, Christians will be less than 50% of the U.S. population by 2070. The reality is that the rate of switching away from Christianity has been accelerating since the 1990s.  Grappling with this kind of disaffiliation is easily as important as navigating our denominational disaffiliation.

And I’m floating in a most peculiar way/And the stars look very different today.  

Odd space.

And we are moving into new space with its own challenges, new space—the emerging United Methodist Church. It is a space that some are trying to describe in ways that I don’t recognize.

The church has been here before, and I don’t just mean The United Methodist Church. Issues of how to form common life, of what kind of space the church, this emerging Jesus community, will be, such issues have been raised before. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables.  I am not sure Paul (Romans 14) grasped the benefits of a vegan diet. Some judge one day better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. To what range of issues did Paul refer when he invited followers of Jesus to allow for this kind of diversity, to not demand uniformity, but to let all be fully convinced in their own minds?

Other New Testament epistles and writings could be read to illustrate some of the controversies and tensions in the emerging Jesus community as they dealt with the questions about what kind of space they were creating. We could have read Acts 15 about the Council at Jerusalem. Should the Gentile followers of Jesus be circumcised and follow the law of Moses in its entirety? (Acts 15:6). Is this the kind of space we want to create? A decision is reached “that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God” with all this. I think not requiring circumcision was sound both theologically and practically. Enough said. Ironically, it is following the Council’s determination, that Paul and Barnabas have a dispute. The disagreement becomes so sharp that they part ways. The Church has been here before.

We are moving into new space with its own challenges, new space—the emerging United Methodist Church. The road to this new space will be bumpy, perhaps something like a farm to market road or a triple digit county road in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and we need to think together about what this new space will be. Under the grace of God in Jesus Christ, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, what will this new space look like?

I am committed to working with you in the Spirit to create space that is genuinely spacious and gracious. “Let love be genuine....  Love one another with mutual affection....  Owe no one anything, except to love one another.... We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.” The space that is the Jesus community is meant to be spacious and gracious, embracing diversity, marveling at the wonder of the variety of persons all of whom reflect the very image of God. All persons, regardless of racial identity, ethnic background, sexual orientation, gender identity, life experience, perspective, education, socio-economic class, are persons to be respected and valued as reflecting the image of God.

We should also be clear that the grace in this space includes the grace of discomfort. Being in spaces where there is difference is uncomfortable for everyone, differences of racial-ethnic background, differences of sexual orientation and gender identity, differences of life experience, differences of perspective, differences in education, differences in socio-economic class.  We know learning and growing do not happen without some anxiety and some discomfort.  In his insightful book about higher education in our society, Safe Enough Spaces, Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University in Connecticut, writes: “If students confuse safety with feeling uncomfortable, they should be challenged in ways that undermine their comfort. One must meet them where they are, but one must not leave them in the same place one found them.” (104). Roth wants his classrooms to be safe enough spaces, places for “students to bring their whole selves to class and be respected when they do so”(105).  Sounds like a helpful image for the spacious and gracious space we want to create in the church.

There will be uncomfortable moments in our transformational journeys with Jesus, but transformation is what Jesus is about—transforming us individually toward holiness, transforming our communities toward God’s beloved community. I am committed to working with you in the Spirit to create space that is genuinely spacious and gracious.  

I am committed to working with you in the Spirit to create space that is genuinely creative and curious.  Many years ago I read a book entitled The Ironic Christian’s Companion. It was one of those books I just came across, never read a review of, did not know the author, but the title sang to me from the bookstore shelf.  The author, Patrick Henry, wrote: 

Once upon a time the term “Christian” meant wider horizons, a larger heart, minds set free, room to move around.  But these days [1999] “Christian” sounds pinched, squeezed, narrow. Many people who identify themselves as Christian seem to have leap-frogged over life, short-circuited the adventure. When “Christian” appears in a headline, the story will probably be about lines drawn, not about boundaries expanded.... Curiosity, imagination, exploration, adventure are not preliminary to Christian identity, a kind of booster rocket to be jettisoned when spiritual orbit is achieved. They are part of the payload. (8-9).  

Space for curiosity, imagination, exploration, adventure. A larger heart. The word I love for this is “capacious”—a capacious heart and soul, and mind, capacious—speaking to both roominess and growing capacity. Capacious heart, soul and mind. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in his sermon, “Love in Action,” preached: 

“Never must the church tire of reminding persons that they have a moral responsibility to be intelligent.  Must we not admit that the church has often overlooked this moral demand for enlightenment?  At times it has talked as though ignorance were a virtue and intelligence a crime.” (The Strength to Love, 31). 

I am committed to working with you in the Spirit to create space that is genuinely creative and capacious, a space of curiosity and intelligence and adventure, a space that increases our capacities for kindness and thoughtfulness.

I am committed to working with you in the Spirit to create space that is genuinely rooted, rooted in Scripture “the constitutive witness to the wellsprings of our faith” (The United Methodist Book of Discipline ¶105), rooted in Scripture as “Illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason” (Book of Discipline, ¶105), but most of all rooted in Jesus Christ, “the living Word of God in our midst whom we trust in life and death” (Book of Discipline, ¶105).

Much has been floating around about the theology of the future United Methodist Church and I am not here to offer point-by-point rebuttal, only my own commitments and affirmations and an invitation to create space. The space we create moving into the future will be and must be rooted in our faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. It will be and must be rooted in the history of our Christian faith, rooted and grounded in Scripture, tradition, reason and experience, with Scripture as the constitutive witness to Jesus as the Christ.

When it is so rooted, it will also allow for creativity and curiosity. “The theological task, though related to the Church’s doctrinal expressions, serves a different function. Our doctrinal affirmations assist us in the discernment of Christian truth in ever-changing contexts. Our theological task includes the testing, renewal, elaboration, and application of our doctrinal perspective in carrying out our calling ‘to spread scriptural holiness over these lands.” As United Methodists we are rooted in our doctrinal heritage, and offered room to think creatively about that heritage. Think of our theological task like jazz. You begin with a tune and that tune grounds everything that the ensemble will be playing. Yet if you’ve ever listened to what John Coltrane does with the song “My Favorite Things,” there are times when the tune seems to get lost, only to reemerge. Sometimes creative theological thinking may strike the wrong notes. It does not mean the tune has changed. It only means we’ve discovered some limits beyond which the tune really cannot be called that same tune. Yet we remain rooted in that tune. I am committed to working with you in the Spirit to create space that is genuinely rooted.

I am committed to working with you in the Spirit to create space that is magnanimous. Years ago in a book entitled A Pretty Good Person, Lewis Smedes wrote:

“What we often need is not to be forgiven, but to be indulged a little. Not every annoyance needs forgiveness. Some pains beg only for a little magnanimity.... With a little magnanimity, the quality of the big soul that puts up with small pains, we can reserve serious forgiving for serious offenses.” (170)

Magnanimous space sounds lovely, and is incredibly complex. Who gets to define the serious offenses?  Too often it has been persons of relative privilege, like me. That doesn’t work. And I have been in spaces where good-hearted, well-intentioned people are afraid to say much of anything for fear that they will be quickly shamed and shut down, and that doesn’t work either. Magnanimous space might be like the banquet Jesus describes in Luke 14, where we are sensitive to the space, offering others the better places, and making sure to include those often excluded. “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” And maybe when you invite them you find some better terms for the invitation.

Magnanimous space might be like the community space Paul describes in Romans 12.  

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.  Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.... Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.... If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

If spacious space is one dimension of what we are wanting to create, making room at the table for all, magnanimous space has something to do with our table manners at that table. We want safe enough space where we recognize the hurtful and harmful potential of words, and we want space where good-hearted, well-intentioned people are not afraid to join the conversation, space where magnanimity is present and forgiveness is possible. I am committed to working with you in the Spirit to create space that is magnanimous.  

I am committed to working with you in the Spirit to create space that is evangelical and disciple-making. Friends, as we continue to work to affirm that we are inviting all, that all means all, we also need to ask, “What are we inviting people to?” As we continue to press forward to expand inclusion, we need to ask, “What are we including people in?” Rooted in our historic Christian faith we know we have good news to share in Jesus Christ, good news that redemption is possible, forgiveness is possible, new life is possible, transformation is possible, beloved community is possible, justice is possible. Our space must be evangelical space, space where good news is shared freely and lovingly. It must be disciple-making space, because this good news of God’s love is intended to take root in our souls and transform our lives. We are inviting people to an adventure with Jesus. We are including people in the work of Jesus in the world—the work of peace-making, of reconciliation, of justice, of breaking down dividing walls, of beloved community, of healing, of beauty, of hope, of love.

And all the other descriptors of the kind of space we want to create moving into the future is part of this being evangelical space. How many people have switched away from Christianity because we have not provided safe enough space, or challenging enough space? How many people have not given the church a chance because it is not seen as a space for creativity and curiosity and intelligence, capacious space? How many people have turned away because we have not seemed rooted deeply enough in our own story? How many people have chosen to leave because our space has not been magnanimous? I am committed to working with you in the Spirit to create space that is evangelical and disciple-making.  

In this odd space we are creating new space which will also be odd space, counter cultural space. In a world of cynicism, this will be a space of hope. In a world that is better at erecting barriers, this will be a space of bridges and reconciliation. In the midst of a world often satisfied with superficial thinking and tweets, this will be thoughtful space that grapples with complexity, that takes seriously the moral responsibility to be intelligent. In the midst of a political culture described as “confrontational and sensational and dismissive” (Anand Giridharadas, The Persuaders, 13), this will be space that is thoughtful, magnanimous, playfully creative, and capacious.

And I wonder if we need some additional metaphors to describe our journey in Jesus together in creating this space. We sometimes use phrases like “a seat at the table.” Important. We envision the table of a Board of Directors making decisions and recognize the importance of having more voices at that table and listening more carefully to voices that have not been present before. Important. Yet there is another table to which we often refer as followers of Jesus. “To everyone born, a place at the table.” The table of Jesus Christ where bread is broken, wine shared freely, and good news proclaimed.  It is a different feel than a board room table, and I wonder sometimes if we might do well to focus on that table. And I wonder if, focusing on that table, what we are up to in our journey with Jesus to create new space is taking whatever old decision-making tables there are and chopping them up for firewood so we can gather together in a very different kind of space where we listen more intently to our stories and share in new ways around a warming fire where food is shared person-to-person and there is singing and there is laughter, and maybe tears. Might that be a deeply evangelical space?  Or perhaps the metaphor is multiplication of the tables, so we have a joyous banquet where we move from table to table, listening, conversing, and maybe in the middle of all these banquet tables is a dance floor where we move and mingle. Might that be deeply evangelical space? I am not asking us to jettison the decision-making table metaphor, only wondering about expanding the pallet for our creative thinking and imagination to include other tables.

As I move toward the conclusion of the address, I offer one more thought. It is one thing to acknowledge that not all want to share this space, that this vision does not capture everyone’s imagination or does not convey faithfulness to some, that not all will be part of the emerging United Methodist Church, that separation is happening and is even needed at this moment—it is one thing to acknowledge all that, and another to say “don’t let the door hit you on the way out.” In his powerful new book, The Persuaders, Anand Giridharadas writes about a disturbing element in our culture, one of “writing people off—assuming that they would never change their minds or ways, dismissing them as hopelessly mired in identities they couldn’t escape, viewing those who thought differently as needing to be resisted rather than won over, refusing to engage the work of persuasion” (4). Later in his book he shares, “new research shows that if you want to change someone’s mind, you need to have patience with them, ask them to reflect on their life, and listen. It’s not about calling people out or labeling them” (302). What will our space look like if we leave room for people to re-consider, change their minds, think in new ways, be persuaded by creative intelligence, moved by God’s Spirit? We are in an odd time of separation, and how we navigate this separation will have an impact on our ability to create the kinds of new spaces we are seeking to create, and will have an impact on our ability to be genuinely evangelical.

Ground control to Major Tom.

Friends, we are in an odd space, and in this odd space we are also creating new space, new space that is in itself odd space.

In the grace of Jesus and in the power of the Spirit, let us together create spacious space, safe enough space, gracious space that also knows the grace of discomfort. In a world of the cutting tweet, of cocooned communities, of drawing narrow circles, this will be odd space, as odd as the Jerusalem Council making room for Gentiles in God’s spaciousness. Toward this odd space, we press on.

In the grace of Jesus and in the power of the Spirit, let us together create creative space, curious space, capacious space. In a world where thoughtfulness is circumscribed by 160 characters or thirty second videos, where only the right questions are allowed, where social space becomes narrower and narrower, where social media becomes ever more toxic, and the moral obligation to be intelligent seems quaint, this will be odd space, as odd as manna in the morning, or Elijah’s ever-flowing jar of oil, or water turned to wine at a wedding, abundance flowing beyond measure. Toward this odd space, we press on.

In the grace of Jesus and in the power of the Spirit, let us together create rooted space, where our lives are rooted in Jesus the Christ, Lord and Savior, and where the creative jazz of our theological thinking soars while remaining rooted in Scripture as the constitutive witness to our faith, in tradition, reason and experience. In a world where rootedness and creative expression are often pitted against one another or where so many feel rootlessness, this will be odd space, as odd as a God who rescues an enslaved people with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm bringing them to a wide and broad land flowing with milk and honey. Toward this odd space, we press on.

In the grace of Jesus and in the power of the Spirit, let us together create magnanimous space, room for all, yet a mannered room of courtesy and kindness, where we recognize the power of words—their power to hurt and wound, their power to heal, the need for words, and the challenge we all feel at times to put things adequately into words. In a world where speech is cheap and the cutting remark valued if it is an applause line, this will be odd space, as odd as a Jesus who scandalously ate with sinners and the disreputable. Toward this odd space, we press on.

In the grace of Jesus and in the power of the Spirit, let us together create evangelical space and disciple-making space. We have good news to share. The grace of God still touches and transforms.  The Spirit of God still builds beloved community. This is odd space in a world where religion switching accelerates and Christ often comes across as bad news, odd as a member of a minority group in the backwater reaches of a vast empire, executed for defying that empire, becoming the crucified and risen Lord. Toward this odd space, we press on.

Let love be genuine.... Love one another with mutual affection.... Owe no one anything, except to love one another. Toward such space we press on.

When you give a banquet, invite those often neglected, ignored, left behind. Add more tables. Enlarge the dance floor. Toward such space press on.

Toward this new space all my relatives, we press on, by the grace of Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit. We press on because Christ Jesus has made us his own.

Commencing countdown engines on.

Check ignition and may God’s love be with you. Indeed!

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