A Way Through the Wilderness

May 8th, 2019
This article is featured in the Where Will You Serve? (May/June/July 2019) issue of Circuit Rider

My pastoral response to the actions of the General Conference of 2019 is rooted in the way I helped the congregation prepare for it. The sermon I preached the Sunday before the conferencing was based on Ephesians 4:1-32, in which Paul instructs the church on how to treat each other with dignity and respect despite its differences. I shared eight principles on how to relate to people who disagree with each other, lifted directly from 4:25-32. These principles are as true and practical now as they were for the Ephesian church:

Therefore, after you have gotten rid of lying, Each of you must tell the truth to your neighbor because we are parts of each other in the same body.

Be angry without sinning. Don't let the sun set on your anger.

Don't provide an opportunity for the devil.

Thieves should no longer steal. Instead, they should go to work, using their hands to do good so that they will have something to share with whoever is in need.

Don't let any foul words come out of your mouth. Only say what is helpful when it is needed for building up the community so that it benefits those who hear what you say.

Don't make the Holy Spirit of God unhappy—you were sealed by him for the day of redemption.

Put aside all bitterness, losing your temper, anger, shouting, and slander, along with every other evil.

Be kind, compassionate, and forgiving to each other, in the same way God forgave you in Christ.

(Eph 4:25-32 CEB)

  1. Speak truth (4:25)
  2. Watch your anger (4:26)   
  3. Don’t steal (someone else’s dignity 4:28)
  4. Practice empathy (4:28)
  5. Watch your language (4:29)
  6. Guard your heart (4:31)
  7. Be kind and compassionate (4:32)
  8. Forgive and ask for forgiveness (4:32)

We concluded the sermon with a participatory prayer, taken from the closing exercise of our Conference-wide “Point of View” conversations that we held over the prior year. I invited people to call out the words and phrases they would use to complete the statement, “The church I long for is _______.”

Their responses were poignant and prescient. They not only framed our prayers for General Conference, but they would help anchor us as we lived into its tumultuous aftermath. "The church we long for is _______ Welcoming, Loving, Inclusive, Christ-Centered, Courageous, Accepting of All, Full of empathy, Humble, Scriptural, Non-judgmental, Non-dualistic, Open Minded, Supportive." These and many other qualities help remind us of who we are called to be, regardless of General Conference action.

By keeping these grass-root characteristics in mind, the day after General Conference I processed my response to the congregation in the form of a pastoral email. First, it was important to name the widespread disappointment many in our congregation felt.

After opening the letter with a brief summary of the General Conference’s decisions, I quoted a verse from the hymn “I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord.”

I love thy kingdom, Lord

For her my tears shall fall,

For her my prayers ascend;

To her my cares and toils be given

Till toils and cares shall end.

I acknowledged the many tears that had been falling, weeping together among the LGBTQ persons who were stunned, saddened, and harmed by this news. I acknowledged the thousands of young clergy and laity in our denomination who are angered and disillusioned. We joined our tears with all of us who believed that we might have prevented those tears. I reminded the congregation that we weep because tears are signs of love. We only mourn those things we really care about.

I then offered these three pastoral words of love:

“To all the LGBTQ persons in this congregation, and connected to this church in the community, I and the entire clergy team love you, and so do many people in this congregation. I am sorry this happened. I grieve over the pain and heartache this brings. The failure of our recent General Conference is more than a mistake. It is a direct violation of the first of Wesley’s three simple rules: do no harm. This outcome caused you harm. And I am so sorry.

“To the LGBTQ allies in this congregation, especially the younger people in the church, we weep with you. We live in a time of great distrust in our civic institutions. The church, of all places, is where we might have expected better than what we see in the world. Instead, General Conference functions in a way that we never expect our local churches to operate. It was marked by anger and power, winners and losers, and the outcome fell far short of justice and equality. I am as disillusioned as you are, and I join in your sadness.

“To those in our congregation who believe differently than I do about same-sex marriage and gay ordination, I and the other clergy want you to know that we love you, too. Because I know you, and I know your heart. I know that your heart is a far cry from the harmful rhetoric expressed by others in our denomination. I know that you do not deserve to be categorized among them, and I am glad that you are part of this church, too.”

After making these pastoral statements, it is also important to offer some reflection on what it means to be a United Methodist. I had to do some deep soul searching myself about why I am in this denomination.

I acknowledged that there are many reasons to be proud of being a United Methodist. Many of those are reasons that other denominations can say about themselves: their global presence; their acts of compassion, mission, and service; their commitment to proclaim the gospel. I told the congregation that we should be proud of those things, and that we are a part of it.

But I told them that what made me fall deeply in love with this denomination in the first place is the aspirational belief that John Wesley demonstrated time and again in his writings and his ministry: that there is always a third way, in the center, that could bring out the best of polarized extremes and produce a vibrant, redemptive third way forward. I see that pattern repeated biblically and theologically, and throughout the history of the church. I believe this is God’s way, and no denomination expresses it better than The United Methodist Church.

I told the congregation that this is what made General Conference hurt even more, that there was a failed attempt to see a third way. We fell short of what makes us unique and strong as Wesleyan Christians. But I said that we remember that a denomination is more—so much more—than the governing structures that make its decisions. Those will sometimes fail, sometimes disappoint, and even sometimes cause great harm.

But here’s the hope. The heartbeat of the Wesleyan heritage will continue. I told them that congregations like the one where we participate will keep living out what makes United Methodism so amazing. I reminded them that we can do what our governing structures cannot seem to do right now: figure out how (1) to live together in worship, mission, and evangelism, despite our differences; (2) to make God’s love real, to love God, and to love all, because we are different, not despite it. That’s the Wesleyan way.

I reminded the congregation that living and loving together does not change. I affirmed that we are blessed by the many LGBTQ people in our congregation, who serve and grow among us in many ways. And that that is who we will continue to be.

So what can be done about our governing structures? I said they must keep iterating and trying to get it right, just like the whole Church of Jesus Christ has been evolving for 2,000 years. Just as God’s grace works in us over a lifetime of change, so it is with the networks that relate together as the Church. There should be some changes in the structures of our denomination. I told them that I don’t know if those changes will come, or what they might look like, but if they do, it may be evidence that God is still nudging the denomination forward, to keep up with where its local churches are leading it.

I concluded with the reminder that we as a congregation would help lead the way:

“We will keep sharing the great gift of our Wesleyan heritage, which shows us that there is always

  • a third way,
  • a both/and way of holiness and justice;
  • a way of growing closer to Jesus and closer to each other;
  • a way of approaching scripture with our hearts and our minds;
  • a way just like John Wesley modeled for us.”

These are difficult days, and the future of our denomination is unsettled. That’s okay. God has seen people through a wilderness before. God still has a heartbeat, and it is pulsing through the local churches and annual conferences. We move on, continuing to be a people called to love God and love all.

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