A Heart at Peace

September 4th, 2018

The Commission on a Way Forward (the group of thirty-two set apart to make recommendations about human sexuality by the General Conference in 2016) read together The Anatomy of Peace by the Arbinger Institute. The book had a powerful influence on our work of coming together as a community of very diverse and sometimes opposite points of view. Some of the concepts in The Anatomy of Peace are so important that we are recommending that every annual conference delegation read the book together in preparation for the Special Called Session of General Conference in February 2019.

In the midst of daily living, and especially during conflict, the book demonstrates how we are either functioning with “a heart at war” or with “a heart at peace.” A heart at war means that we are closed by our own position or beliefs, and we are not willing to compromise or listen to anything contrary. Our actions are to defend, protect, and conquer. A heart at war means that our souls are restless and unsettled, and we are willing to aggressively enforce our beliefs. When we have a heart at war, we see people as objects, and we treat them as vehicles that we use, obstacles that we blame, and irrelevancies that we ignore.

In contrast, a heart at peace means that we know where we stand, but with a “convicted humility,” we are open to explore all sides of an issue in order to be open to where God is leading us. Our actions are to be curious, open-minded, and willing to say, “I might be wrong about this.” When we have a heart at peace, we see people as subjects, and we seek to know their needs, concerns, and challenges. We treat them with the love and compassion that we yearn to receive from others.

Our United Methodist General Conferences, for more than two decades, reflect an ethos sustaining a heart at war, especially over issues that clearly divide us, such as human sexuality. During my very first General Conference, as a young clergyperson, I was taught that I must be ready to defend my position and to fight for those concessions that would affect “our” point of view. There was no talk of what God’s will was, but rather the reinforcing of a select theological and political position in the church. I was taught to live with a heart at war!

Tragically, I was not the only one schooled in this way. It is too ironic, because we are not a military, a for-profit corporation, or a political institution whose mission is to win, overpower, and conquer the competition.

We are part of the church of Jesus Christ, whose main purpose is to love God and our neighbor the same way we love ourselves. We should be taught not to win but to sacrifice, not to overpower but to love, not to conquer but to show compassion, not to lecture but to listen. In short, we should be taught to have a heart at peace, not at war.

At the deeper levels of the Arbinger principles, they teach that organizations have been going about reaching their desired outcomes with the wrong motives. Most organizations try to shape the behavior of their workers in order to get to desired results. Examples are: “sell more,” “recruit more,” or “produce more.” We do this in the church also: “attract more people,” “raise more money,” and “recruit younger people.” By focusing on these behaviors, organizations believe that they will achieve the desired outcomes.

However, cajoling coworkers to drive harder seldom works. It is extremely difficult to change or alter people’s behaviors, because behaviors alone do not deliver success, vitality, or health. A classic example of this resistance to adapt is the American Medical Association’s research, in which people with chronic heart disease were told directly that unless they changed their lifestyle, they would soon die. Only one in seven were able to change their behaviors or lifestyle, even when told they would die as the consequence.

Unless we change our mindset or attitudes, as well as our hearts (our emotions), we will not be able to achieve the desired results. The holistic internal reference of individuals must change for the cultural shift to take place. We are describing metanoia (translated in the Common English Bible as “changed hearts and lives”), which is a 180-degree shift in our internal reference. This is how we become “part of the new creation” in Christ Jesus (2 Cor 5: 17).

The United Methodist Church’s General Conference falls into this same trap each quadrennium. We try to control delegates’ behavior through the organizational rules and regulations that are set for the conference. Parliamentary procedure, legislative processes, and the long-standing cultural norms of General Conference, such as sitting in order of delegate election, rule the day.

We pay very little attention to developing the minds and hearts of delegates in a positive and constructive way. In fact, we harden the minds and hearts of our delegates by preparing them for conflict, war, and winning others to “our” side. This kind of power has led to the current impasse concerning LGBTQ inclusion. We have hardened our stances vis-à-vis the other side and are not willing to be open to where God is leading us.

What if we prepared for the Special Called Session of General Conference and future General Conferences differently? What if we worked toward a heart at peace instead of a heart at war? What if we came together with the desired outcomes of the whole church as our main priorities: mission, outreach, compassion, justice, and the “Making of Disciples for the Transformation of the World”?

So, as we prepare for the Special Called Session, what does it mean to have a heart at peace? The theological statement that the Commission on a Way Forward uses is “convicted humility.” As it is described in our Commission’s theological framework:

This is an attitude which combines honesty about the differing convictions which divide us with humility about the way in which each of our views may stand in need of correction. It also involves humble repentance for the ways in which we have spoken and acted as those seeking to win a fight rather than those called to discern the shape of faithfulness together. In that spirit, we wish to lift up the shared core commitments which define the Wesleyan movement, and ground our search for wisdom and holiness.

If the majority of our delegates can come with this “convicted humility” as an expression of a heart at peace, we will have a chance to shape The United Methodist Church in a whole new and fresh way. At stake is the future of our denomination, and we dare not allow our selfishness, sinfulness, and hearts at war to jeopardize what we offer to the world. A heart at peace is the answer, and one that must not falter. 

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