Shaking and Stirring

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

“Look! I'm doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don't you recognize it?”

Isaiah 43:19 CEB

“I don’t recognize my church.” That’s what I said to myself while serving as a delegate of the 2016 General Conference in Portland, Oregon. Granted, I’d lived in relative oblivion of the workings of the institutional church at the “General” level before then, having chosen to focus primarily on those I was appointed to serve. Some who know me well might also suggest I tend to see light even when there are mostly shadows, which if true, could be characterized as either a gift or willful ignorance. I certainly have lived a life filled with privilege and hence with the capacity to miss a good bit of what is often the unjust mess of things. Whatever mix of factors are the cause, the reality is I spent the better part of 2016-2019 wondering about what I experienced in Portland. Is that really my church?

When I say “my church” I’m simply referencing The United Methodist Church I know, the church that taught me the stories of Jesus, sent me to camp, showed me how to raise my voice in prayer and song, trained me to be a leader, and encouraged me to ask questions and to serve others as Jesus serves. This United Methodist Church organized youth trips to New York City and Washington, DC to study social justice issues from a faith perspective. It showed me adults engaging in Bible Study and shared leadership who often disagreed—but listened to, learned from, and loved each other. This UMC helped me recognize and question the poverty in my small, Oklahoma home town, as well as the fact that African Americans lived in an entirely separate small town down the road.

While growing up in middle America, surrounded by a variety of other Protestant traditions, my United Methodist experience always felt different. It was only after studying religion and theology as an adult that I truly understood why. It has everything to do with the assurance of God’s grace and the promise that, over time and through the power of God’s grace and our willingness to receive it, our lives can change and more fully reflect God’s perfect love. Another departure is our value for and openness to theological diversity and a wide range of perspective, opinion, and experience—being a “big tent.” And the other piece I once took for granted is the Wesleyan insistence on a balance of both personal piety and social justice, of both heart and head engagement. I believe this gospel wholeness and integration is a hunger for people of every age and culture.

I love so much about “my church.” And I’m not just talking about my personal, culturally specific experience of church or about a static “institution,” I’m talking about the living, breathing reality of diverse persons who, through Spirit and sacrament, become the Body of Christ—in our case, a Body trained and strengthened by the traditions gathered into “United Methodism.”

As with any religious community, the Methodist and then United Methodist Church has never been without conflict and injustice. We know our history as the institutional Body of Christ is marred by painful broken places, some we have sought to mend with care and others—acknowledged or unacknowledged—that remain jagged or fused poorly, leaving us with a dull, consistent ache that is sometimes difficult to diagnose. Our current reality is, of course, an acute experience of brokenness, an obvious break so clearly on display at the 2019 General Conference. But the pressure and impact of that break aggravates every other raw, tender, or fragile place in the Body, so that we now ignore these painful flares at great peril.

Before the 2019 special General Conference, I kept getting the message in prayer that “even when things seem at their worst, God is moving.” This word was a steady assurance that God is always working to bring about mending and new life; it was encouragement to pay attention so as not to miss where new life might be emerging.

"Sacred Resistance" by Ginger Gaines-Cirelli. Order here:

In St. Louis and through the days following, I’ve tried to pay attention. What I perceive is a strong reaction against what happened at General Conference by large numbers of United Methodists, even among those who historically have been willing to stay out of the fray. There is concern of a growing divide—driven by mistrust—between “centrists” and “progressives” and, within those broad communities, the potential for further splintering.

Some are worried about friends whose interpretations and applications of scripture have left them feeling stranded in a center-right “no man’s land.” Many are calling out the continued white supremacy that undergirds much of our institutional history, experience, and values. Issues of power, money, control, and property are receiving fresh critique. Others are crying out against past and present colonialism, the dearth of young voices being raised up, the rejection of LGBTQ leadership in the conversation about the future of our shared life, and our collective failure to govern ourselves in a way that doesn’t completely dehumanize everyone in the process. The rich diversity within the Body of Christ is demanding attention, and we are being challenged to perceive and honor not only discrete groups but persons who live at places of intersection between race, class, theological perspective, gender identity, orientation, ability, age, culture, and language.

Some may despair at all this—thinking it’s too much to take in, too “political,” making things too complicated, getting away from the spiritual core of the gospel, and—“Why can’t we all just love each other and get along?!” I’ve heard all of that and more.

But I believe God is using this moment to shake the Body of Christ awake to these complicated, painful realities and to these beautiful, complex possibilities for healing, reparation, insight, deepened faith and understanding, peace with justice, and a Body that is healthier and more whole.

What if we were to invite ourselves and our congregations to practice deep awareness of our emotional reactivity to what we are reading, hearing, and seeing from others? What if we intentionally chose to:

  1. deeply listen first to those speaking out on the things I’ve named and also news of and reports from groups across our church having conversations, meetings, and gatherings about the future expression(s) of United Methodism;
  2. in response, deeply listen to ourselves, concretely naming what comes up in us—rage, resentment, discomfort, dismissal, defensiveness, grief, exhaustion, hope, surprise, pain, and more;
  3. hold all of it in a place of spiritual curiosity and grace, asking God to reveal
    • what we need to perceive,
    • what we need to receive with gratitude,
    • what we need to critique in love, and
    • how we can participate in constructive ways in what God is doing;
    • write down what emerges in order to return to it—always with spiritual curiosity, grace, an open heart, and a desire to be more like Jesus.

I imagine that this listening, praying, and journaling could be a personal and a communal practice, with the goal that we find ways to prayerfully and lovingly respond rather than thoughtlessly react. It is a great temptation in moments such as this one to be reactive. The urge to do something is strong and can lead to big decisions made at the worst possible moments. Any counselor worth their salt will tell you that making life-changing decisions while in grief and rage is unwise and often leads to regret.

One of the questions I’ve received is whether, in light of all the prayer surrounding it, the outcome of General Conference 2019 is the will of God. This is a rather loaded question—but fair. From where I sit in prayer, I perceive in this moment that God is shaking and stirring us to grapple not only with our future but with our past: to repent and reset, reclaim our Wesleyan theology and heritage as a radical spiritual renewal movement, while also retaining what is healthy and supportive to that cause from our experience as an institution. What if that is the will of God? In other words, nothing is finished. I believe God is offering us a profound opportunity to participate in God’s saving work of mending and making new.

I don’t know exactly what that is going to look like or what it fully means for The United Methodist Church in the future. But I do know that “my church” is not only alive but beautiful and powerful and innovative and faithful. I have seen it! The church I know exists in every annual conference around the world and is made up of people at the margins, in the center, and dwelling at the intersection of multiple margins. The church I know is made up of Jesus followers who represent the fullness of every human culture and experience and who earnestly seek to use whatever power they have for good. In 2016, I despaired. But my ministry across these past few years offers a glimpse into the faces and hearts of siblings and communities who are the church I know. I see that church shining and standing and singing and loving and welcoming and organizing and leading and praying and stepping back or stepping up and witnessing to the power of Jesus’ life and love even in the consequences of the General Conference in St. Louis.

The light shines across the connection. A beautiful church is not only emerging but is already here and we have the opportunity to be a part of its new, redeemed expression. Do you perceive it?

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