General Conference and the sin of certainty

March 6th, 2019

At General Conference 2019, we United Methodists often heard the phrase, “perfect the legislation.” The idea of perfection is not foreign to us Wesleyans. For John Wesley, perfection is a state in which we recognize our absolute dependence on Christ. As we come closer to perfection, we recognize how far away we are from Jesus, just how sinful we really are.

Perfecting the legislation meant something quite different — bringing it up to a standard where at least a majority of the people were content, and ensuring that it would pass constitutional muster.

More than likely, we failed on both definitions of “perfection.”

One of the shocking things about our culture is our seeming certainty about another’s sin. It has become an almost gleeful act to find and name the sins of another. Over the past few months, I have watched as people willfully misrepresent the positions of others. Some blogs have gone so far as to claim that if the One Church Plan passed, we would eventually move to a position where we can do away with professing the divinity of Christ.

At other times, my progressive friends would make snide remarks about the rural communities that I serve, as if the 2016 election was also a map of the places that God has abandoned.

As a pastor, I often fell into this trap. It is easy to name the sins of another, without ever having to witness my own lack of humility and pride, or to see how my own sins might be feeding into another’s brokenness.

In college, I was something of a traditionalist when it came to human sexuality. I grew up in a more conservative denomination than the United Methodist Church, and I had not really explored the topic biblically or theologically. So, I clung to the official teaching of the denomination.

In my last semester of college, I took a course on religious intolerance in US history, where we watched a documentary on religious perceptions of LGBTQ individuals. Afterwards, I texted a classmate of mine, who happened to be a conservative Muslim.

“What do you think?” I asked him. “Is it really a sin?”

The reply came almost immediately. “Can you meet me in the student union in fifteen minutes?”

Over Chick-Fil-A sandwiches, we talked about the class as a whole, before I brought up the reason for my text in the first place. “I’m going to seminary next year,” I said, “and I’m trying to figure out what I think about this topic. I know you’re religious, and so I wanted to hear your thoughts.”

My friend’s eyes narrowed, and the tone of the conversation changed.

“I’m going to tell you something,” he said, barely above a whisper. “But you have to promise not to tell anyone else. Only a few people know.”

There was silence until I gave my word. My friend nodded, acknowledging my promise.

“I think I’m gay. I don’t want to be, though. I didn’t choose this. It’s not a choice I made.”

I listened as my friend talked. He was unsure of himself, of who he was. He was unsure of how this might change his faith. Whether God would still love him. Whether he could still love himself.

His last question to me that night was one steeped in fear. “Am I going to hell? I don’t want to go to hell. I didn’t choose this.”

Over the next several weeks, as the school year wound to a close, my friend slowly came out. He told a trusted professor, and began telling more close friends. He told his parents, who vowed that they would find a way to correct this (“They don’t understand. I can’t change this,” my friend told me). He told me about years earlier, how someone he trusted had taken advantage of him, and how that brought about more shame. Finally, my friend began to see an outline of hope.

“I woke up this morning,” he told me with a wide smile, “And I didn’t want to kill myself.”

Before, during, and after General Conference, I thought of my friend often. Mostly, I reflected on his pain. I thought about how, as he strived to be faithful, he also had to wrestle with the question of whether or not God loved him, and whether he could love himself. I thought about the courage it must have taken to share that secret with me, not knowing how I would react. And, since many of his friends were active in the same Christian campus ministry, this was an act of courage that would have to be repeated over and over again.

Surely, I’ve thought many times since that night, God does not desire that pain.

Often, when we begin to name the sins of another, we claim that we are “speaking the truth in love.” Speaking the truth in love, though, requires that we actually love the person to whom we are speaking. Love requires a commitment, a covenant that we are not going to abandon each other.

More often than not, I’ve noticed that when we “speak truth in love” to one another these days, it’s a precursor to leaving, a way of ending the relationship.

As my friend shared his secret that night with me, I can safely say that he was the only one speaking a truth in love. He invited me to see his pain and to share in it. But he also asked me a deeper question: Can you put aside your need for certainty, the need to be righteous, and simply remind me that I am a beloved child of God?

Without meaning to, my friend invited me to confess my own sin: the need I felt to name all the sins around me, rather than examine myself and how far away from God I might be.

I am glad that General Conference came right before Lent, because if nothing else, I am reminded of that egregious sin of certainty. For this season, I will allow my friend to speak truth in love to me once again, and I will repent of the ways in which my need to know my own righteousness has contributed to the groans of this world.

With any luck, I can restart my journey towards Christian perfection once again.

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