Growth In Disturbed Soil

July 3rd, 2019
This article is featured in the Where Will You Serve? (May/June/July 2019) issue of Circuit Rider

In Texas, bluebonnets herald the coming of Spring. Roadsides, ditches, and culverts burst with color as the seasons change and life reasserts itself. These wildflowers are beloved natives where I live: hardy, yet delicate; prolific, yet so precious. Their buds are a beautiful blue that’s rare in nature.

But if you want to know the coolest thing about bluebonnets, look below the showy blooms and verdant leaves to the very base of the plant. Bluebonnets flourish in places other plants avoid. As the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center puts it, bluebonnets “thrive in heavily disturbed, poor soils.” What a cool flower! Wherever the soil is the worst—the thin gravel on the sides of roads, over-grazed fields, highway medians, neglected street corners—that’s where bluebonnets stake their claim. And once they take root, their presence transforms dodgy spaces into islands of beauty.

No matter how you see homosexuality, decades of fighting over this issue in the UMC has “disturbed” the soil of our local churches. Ever since General Conference, the disturbance has reached saturation. No matter where you fall in this debate, there is less to celebrate in a church so deeply divided and bent on fighting.

Our churches can learn from the hardy bluebonnet, and can do more than survive the days ahead. Let’s take this “highly disturbed soil” and grow something beautiful, something that witnesses to the power, grace, and love of God for all people. God moves in all soils, at all times. And often when the soil is at its worst, the church is at its finest. It’s time to learn how to grow, thrive, and witness in challenging soil.

How? It begins with pastors like you and me. My friends, don’t underestimate your position and potential in this time of change. You likely already know how much your people need you, especially in times of confusion. As systems struggle and ideologies clash, our calling as pastors remains the same: help our people take the next faithful step towards Jesus. Your people may never meet their General Conference delegates, District Superintendent, or Bishop. But you are there for them, week after week. You pray for them when they are sick, baptize their children, perform the funeral of someone they love. You are their pastor, the leader God placed in that community to provide hope, calm, and direction. They look to you to help them find the way forward.

God has trusted us, the pastors of congregations, with guiding our flocks through this difficult time. That may mean you need to take some time to sort out your own feelings, to pray, and talk with supportive friends and colleagues. This is a “who moved my cheese” moment for many of us. We need to process our own emotions (grief, fear, anxiety, sorrow, pain) so we can be the calm, steady, hopeful leaders our people need.

Most of us would not have chosen to lead at such a difficult time, but here it is. This is a crucial moment. Don’t hide or equivocate. Remember God’s words to Joshua, “I've commanded you to be brave and strong, haven't I? Don't be alarmed or terrified, because the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (Josh 1:9 CEB). Guide your people forward with hope.

Not so fast, you might say, not all my people agree on the way forward! Neither do mine. Like you, I lead a heterogenous church. My congregation doesn’t agree internally about what the Bible says regarding homosexuality. I lead traditionalists and progressives and moderates. At our first staff meeting (paid and unpaid) after the decision, things got heated within minutes. Several staff felt affirmed by the decision; many others were hurt. They began to argue their point of view and it got loud. I called time-out.

We prayed together, and I reminded them that we don’t agree about what the Bible says regarding homosexuality, but all agree that Jesus saved our lives and called us into leadership. As his followers, we must respect and love each other. The more we do that, the more the people in our church will know that they don’t need to shame or blame each other, but to model love at a time when mercy and kindness to the other side is not only hard but counter-cultural.

Gil Rendle describes our culture as one in which “few venture beyond their preferred reality or truth to try to understand how things might be seen differently…We now live in the ‘electronic equivalent’ of gated communities” (Quietly Courageous, 39). Unlike churches of the past, your congregation consists of people used to getting news and information from sources they already agree with. But then they come to church and find a community of people from different backgrounds and upbringings. People who vote differently (horror!) and may strongly disagree with their (obviously inerrant) reading of the Bible.

Jesus didn’t say we should only love believers whose theology lines up with ours. He called us to love everyone, even Samaritans (those others who have it all wrong and are spiritually impure and theologically addled). Teach your people that they don’t need to convert others to their point of view. Just love them and partner with them in changing the world together. If you can help your people deepen their love for modern “Samaritans” (whoever they are for that individual), you will have helped them thrive in thin, disturbed soil.

Another way to shine is to be a witness to the community around your church. It seems like a strange time for a United Methodist to hope to be a witness to the world. But this disturbed soil gives us a chance to bloom in a new way. Here’s how. The people who live around your church are used to the way the world works: individuals gather with other people who think, vote, and act just like they do. Let it be differently beautiful in your church. Imagine the witness you can have as a church when you admit you don’t all agree on what the Bible says about homosexuality, but still love each other, and still love all the other imperfect people in the world, too. Jesus said the world would know we belonged to him by how we loved each other (John 13:35). And nowhere is that witness more powerful that when we don’t agree but remain in community.

The Church, after all, began with a very diverse group of disciples. Jesus didn’t pick all fishermen, or all tax collectors, or all zealots. He chose a variety. At least two of The Twelve who followed Jesus were diametrically opposed to each other, politically and in how to apply their faith. Zealots (like Simon) supported extreme, sometimes violent measures for ousting Rome and its administrators. And Matthew was a tax collector, the ultimate sell-out to Rome. Both of them, Jewish zealot and Roman collaborator, are chosen by Jesus for the first faith community. Simon and Matthew had to learn not only love their Savior but to love each other. They had to leave it up to Jesus to point out where each needed to change, because both of them needed that, too.

The early church, too, was a beautiful, varied tapestry of people. There were Jews and Greeks, slaves and free people, men and women. People who, just a few years before, would not allow “those people” in their home because they didn’t live out what the Bible said about kosher laws now sat together at meals.

This kind of diverse community has never been easy, but it has been the shape of being a follower of Jesus right from the start. One of the most encouraging accounts from the early church is about a fight that arises between Jews and Gentiles regarding food distribution. Yet the way the early believers handle their disagreement is so beautiful that it causes new people to join the church! Seriously! A church fight that brings people to faith! To conclude the account of this church dispute, Luke writes, “So God’s message continued to spread. The number of believers greatly increased in Jerusalem, and many of the Jewish priests were converted, too.” (Acts 6:7 NLT). This story gives me hope that church fights, if handled well, can increase our witness. But we must do as Jesus asked, and let our love shine out for all to see.

The world will know us by the way we love each other.

Not the way we exegete the Bible.

Or the way we argue for our point of view.

Or even for our perfect doctrine.

We are shown to belong to Jesus when we love each other.

I can’t control the dialogue or tone in the larger UMC. But in my little corner of creation, I have a chance to help my people make a different choice. To turn a difficult, painful time into a chance to flourish as witnesses for God. Yes, the soil is hard and disturbed. Yes, the larger church has a lot of figuring out to do. But our churches, like the Texas bluebonnets, can resolve to thrive in whatever soil we are given.

Bring beauty to this space and time through your witness of love for all God’s children. Remember Jesus’ words: “This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other” (John 13:35 CEB). Love blooms in all types of soil, at all times.

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