What Do You Mean… Time to Split?

April 21st, 2014

“As we were sitting in the back of the truck at the end of the day, I wondered why I wasn’t feeling a sense of joy. We had worked hard all day helping many people, but it didn’t seem as if we were making any difference. The conditions in Haiti are so overwhelming. Then it dawned on me that mission work was never meant to be easy. Living out our faith by reaching out to God’s precious children who are in need is intense and difficult, but that is what builds up our faith. We trust that God will take our efforts and bless them in ways we will never know.”

I was deeply moved by the story of this faithful disciple of Jesus Christ because he has been willing to commit to the long haul in Haiti. There is nothing easy about being a Christian, either here in the U.S. or anywhere else in the world. And there doesn’t seem to be anything easy about being a United Methodist these days, either.

The cover picture of the April 16 issue of The Christian Century shows a person wearing a rainbow stole with hands open in prayer, along with these words, “Time to Split? The United Methodist battle over same-sex marriage.” Our denomination has not been of one mind about homosexuality and same-sex marriage for decades, but I was not prepared to see these words on the cover of a national Christian magazine. I thought, “What do you mean … time to split? How could it ever possibly be time to split?”

I am an incurable optimist. I always believe there is a way to work through differences. “Where there is a will, there is a way,” I was taught as a child. When we make a commitment to a relationship or a group, we also promise to stay in the same boat together and not bail or jump ship. Even when disagreements are intense and hearts and minds are not clear, I am convinced that, with God’s help, we can almost always stick together.

My own call to ministry came as a child, but I never pursued it because women could not be pastors in the General Conference Mennonite Church at the time. Although my gifts were affirmed in many different ways by the people at Zion Mennonite Church, no one ever said to me, “I think you would make a good pastor. Have you ever thought about ministry?”

When I was in a seminary-based graduate school for sacred music, I realized for the first time that some women were, indeed, pastors. That Christmas I shared my now fifteen-year-old call to ministry with our pastor’s wife. She replied, “But you know, Laurie, women can’t be pastors. If all women pastors were like you, however, it would be just fine.”

The implication was that somehow women pastors were scary, odd, threatening, and even suspect. I was not deterred by her words, and in a few years my home church in Pennsylvania was also convinced, having watched me grow up. I was ordained at Zion Mennonite Church despite the fact that every other pastor in our district boycotted the ordination because I was a woman. I remember wondering how sad it was that such a difference divided us.

At the very beginning of my ministry I learned that our own fears, stereotypes, and judgments about those whom we perceive as different can prevent even Christians from seeing one another through the eyes of love. I realized that only way to work toward positive change was to be myself, follow my call, and keep on loving.

I soon migrated away from Mennonite territory to Michigan, where the West Michigan Conference extended a warm invitation for an Anabaptist woman to receive an appointment. The United Methodist Church eventually won me over, and I transferred my ordination credentials to a denomination that I freely chose, in large part because it exemplified John’s Wesley’s words in his sermon, “The Character of a Methodist”:

But as to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think.

That’s precisely why the cover of The Christian Century was so shocking to me. How have we come to this, my beloved adopted family? Can an issue that Jesus never even addressed strike at the root of Christianity? Is there no way that we can live together despite our disagreements?

In the interest of full disclosure, I haven’t always been willing to accommodate my practical theology to those who differ from me. I brought vestiges of my Mennonite heritage to The United Methodist Church. I do not wear make-up or jewelry. Neither do I drink alcohol or coffee. And I am a pacifist, having grown up in one of the historic “peace” churches.

When I am in proof-texting mode, I can find passages in the Bible to justify all of my quirky behaviors and beliefs, although Jesus only touched on one of them. Yet, over the years I have worked to humbly surrender my assumed moral superiority and judgment of others. John Wesley has taught me that if my ways of living as a Christian don’t strike at the heart of the Christian faith, I need to chill out.

THE distinguishing marks of a Methodist are not his opinions of any sort. His assenting to this or that scheme of religion, his embracing any particular set of notions, his espousing the judgment of one man or of another, are all quite wide of the point. Whosoever, therefore, imagines that a Methodist is a man of such or such an opinion, is grossly ignorant of the whole affair; he mistakes the truth totally.

What do you mean … time to split? I have struggled mightily with homosexuality over the years, but if the truth be known, the battle has been primarily with my own inability to love unconditionally and embrace what I cannot understand. I have also come to realize that Christianity is ultimately about how we practice our own faith, not about how we judge another person’s faith. The root of Christianity is the vulnerable, sacrificial, self-giving love of Jesus, who calls us to share that extravagant, “knows no bounds” grace with all.

“What then is the mark? Who is a Methodist, according to your own account?” I answer: A Methodist is one who has ‘the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Ghost given unto him;’ one who ‘loves the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his mind, and with all his strength.’ God is the joy of his heart, and the desire of his soul…

Is there room in The United Methodist Church for everyone who has the love of God shed abroad in their heart and desires to live in peace with their neighbors? Even if resolution is not possible, dare we live together as the body of Christ and honor the depth and integrity of all perspectives by how we choose to be the beloved community?

  • Can we project a positive image of our cherished church by sharing Christ’s love with all and putting our energy into making new disciples instead of politely encouraging others to leave or threatening to leave ourselves? 
  • Can we focus on our missional DNA by volunteering in our schools, prisons, food pantries, hospitals, and soup kitchens? 
  • Can we band together to eliminate malaria, tackle poverty around the world, and fight injustice and oppression wherever they present themselves? 
  • Can we vow to be the body of Christ in a pluralistic world in which God calls us to be a beacon of hope, a lighthouse, and a saving station rather than a battleground? 
  • Can we covenant to work together before the 2016 General Conference to honor cultural and geographical contexts and adapt our structure to God’s world, where the many United Methodist branches that are connected to the root of Christianity are constantly changing, growing, and moving on to perfection? 

If we are true to John Wesley’s teaching, and true to his definition of Methodists, the idea of “splitting” would not be part of the conversation. Time to split? Far from it. Time to rise to the occasion and become the beloved community. We need each other to be whole, especially when we don’t agree. In renewing our commitment to demonstrate the character of a Methodist by loving one another, we model for the world the possibility of shalom.

And I beseech you, brethren, by the mercies of God, that we be in no wise divided among ourselves. Is thy heart right, as my heart is with thine? I ask no farther question. If it be, give me thy hand. For opinions, or terms, let us not destroy the work of God. Dost thou love and serve God? It is enough. I give thee the right hand of fellowship.

What if The United Methodist Church began to model healthy rather than punitive ways of dialoguing about its own difficult issues so that we can be a witness for how our world can manage complex differences? What if conflict became an opportunity for spiritual growth – to enlarge our hearts, see ourselves in new ways, and contribute to peace and justice in our world? What if we trusted the hard work of treating each other in a life-giving manner, maintaining church fellowship, and preserving the unity of the community of faith?

The United Methodist Church won me over 33 years ago. What do you mean … time to split?

Laurie Haller blogs at LaurieHaller.org.

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