Church, church, you are distracted by many things…
In response to a pastor’s call to pray for the people of Haiti (and the current cholera crisis), I heard a lay person whisper, “I thought we took care of that!” I think she was referring to the earthquake response earlier in the year, but we hardly “took care” of anything. Conditions in Haiti have been horrible non-stop since the quake, even though the UMC and other denominations and relief agencies have moved on to other concerns. We suffer a subtle but significant attention deficit disorder — trying to attend to so many things that we pay attention to virtually none for more than a fleeting instant. We want to focus on leadership AND new churches AND reaching new audiences AND revitalizing existing churches AND be in ministry with the poor AND global health AND church growth AND rethinking church AND A Call to Action AND elimination of root causes of poverty AND Nothing But Nets AND Change the World AND AIDS AND disaster response AND apportionments AND guaranteed appointments AND the elimination of institutional racism AND General Conference AND a hundred meetings/workshops/seminars/task forces/tables AND… Jesus wept.
There is no clear priority order for any of these things. If the UMC could do one — and only one — of the things listed above, we would find ourselves mired in an endless debate over what it should be. And most people would be fine focusing on one, but within moments would shift focus to something else. All this because we are not really sure why we are here. We are pulled in so many directions, and because we aren’t sure where we ought to go, we are “tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine,” debate, and division. Everything is important, so nothing is more important than anything else. Everything is a priority so that nothing is a priority. We dabble in a little of everything so that we don’t have to excel at anything. There is nothing to be held accountable to because we never bother identifying concrete missional objectives to measure. We just count instead — the number of members, the number of churches, the number of dollars — which tell us very little about how well we are “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” We are regularly accused of mediocrity because that is all people see. It is virtually impossible to comprehend all the good things The United Methodist Church is doing because we are doing a little of so very much!
What do we believe God wants us to transform the world into? Some say “the kingdom of God,” while others cry that “kingdom” is exclusive and patriarchal. Some say “paradise,” but paradise for whom? We can’t figure out who we want to allow into our local churches. What makes us think we will do a better job welcoming the broken and bent into paradise? Some want only “good” Christians “in” and everyone else “out,” but who gets to decide? Almost everyone wants to make some artificial division between “us” and “them” based on a spurious and selective scriptural standard. Many Christians want to reestablish an Old Testament hegemony to displace the New Testament vision of grace and love. Some wish to attend solely to the leading of the Holy Spirit — as long as everyone agrees with OUR understanding of Spirit. I think this is part of the problem: everyone wants the world to be “better” but there is no clear definition of what “better” might be.
Yet, we know that love is better than hate. We know that forgiveness is better than holding grudges. We know that mercy is better than vengeance. We know that kindness is better than cruelty. We know that peace is better than violence. We know this and dozens of other equally valid things, but it doesn’t seem to make a big difference. And it may be because we are trying to do too many things at once. We leave ourselves no time to focus on one important thing — we try to do it all.
What if our denomination dedicated a quadrennium to just one thing? How about Joy? We could establish a missional priority for every member, congregation, conference, jurisdiction, board, agency, etc., to produce and share the spiritual fruit of joy throughout the world. We could mandate the church to celebrate. We could declare a moratorium on any activity that is not aimed at producing the fruit of joy in the world. We could have contests to produce the greatest spirit of joy. Or we could focus on love, or kindness, or generosity, or peace-making. Just think how powerful a witness we could make were we to get on the same page.
Must we limit ourselves to just one thing? Couldn’t we do a few things? Sure, but before long we are right back where we started. Actually, we could assign different fruits to different jurisdictions: Southeast could be assigned love, Northeast peace, North Central joy, South Central kindness, Western gentleness, and Central conferences generosity. The General Conference could be a time of making fruit salad — enriching and benefiting everyone together.
There is no simple, one-right-answer. But it is worth exploring simplifying and focusing, setting a few priorities that drive everything we do to help us more clearly communicate who we are and why we’re here. Ultimately, it is about paying attention, staying focused, and actually making a difference. I think we could do it… whatever it is, I can’t remember what I was saying…