The Unforgiving

I am back from Annual Conference (and a few days off to recuperate…).  My inbox is packed with mail from people who loved this year’s conference, hated this year’s conference, were proud of this year’s conference, were ashamed by this year’s conference, were excited by the delegation we elected to General and Jurisdictional conference, disappointed by the delegations — in other words, very normal, human reactions to a big business meeting that brings hundreds of people into close proximity in a strange and unfamiliar place.  But there is a subtle undercurrent to the reactions to this year’s conference — almost everyone has something unpleasant to say about someone else.  “Those people,” “that person,” “them,” pervades each missive.  The implied message is that conference would have been so much better, except for “them” (whoever “them” might be…).  Don’t get me wrong — we have some serious issues — differences of opinion, theology, moral compass, and personal desires — that divide us.  What strikes me is that we are not making any kind of commitment to build bridges, heal hurts, and forge alliances that will move us forward.  It doesn’t help that we have a church trial coming up this week to try one of our sisters-in-Christ for her sexual orientation and her officiating at a same-sex union.  Hear this: I don’t CARE what views we hold on the issues of gays and lesbians in the church — what I believe is that God wants us to find a way to live the fruit of the Spirit IN SPITE of our personal differences.  One may hold a negative view of same-sex partnerships and still offer love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control to those same people.  Not only can we not muster basic fruit, we can’t even offer a high fructose corn syrup (fake) alternative!  For some reason, it is more important to argue and hate and score points off of others than to care for them.

Then we have the underlying problem of victimhood to contend with.  I cannot remember a conference where it was more important to more people to make sure everyone knew how wrongly they were being treated.  If there were a single spirit for this year’s conference I would name it “indignation.”  People took EVERYTHING personally.  Hotel rooms reservations were messed up — obviously this was done on purpose to make life harder for some individuals.  Food prices were high at the concession stand — obviously a conspiracy to cause hardship.  The dates of annual conference were moved over a weekend to accommodate more lay involvement and the response was framed in terms of “the conference” trying to deny access to certain groups.  (Actually, one important note:  the most mature, balanced, and grace-filled response during the entire conference came from our teenagers who expressed concern that conference would occur before they were out of school, and that they hoped we would take that into account in future years.  They were impressive in their non-anxious presence.)  The big issues over gay and lesbian acceptance, latent (and not-so-latent) institutional racism and sexism, and budget/finances all brought to the surface the victim-mentality.  Even our Petitions process (for General Conference) caused the “this isn’t fair” flag to be raised.  My Conference has a long history of dealing with Petitions as fodder for debate and making stump speeches, and the team this year pushed for a clear, simple “concurrence/non-concurrence” process, as outlined in the Discipline.  Some folks took this as a personal insult that they couldn’t engage in interminable speechifying.  (However, I have four emails from long time UMC vets who thanked us — one saying this was the most rational and reasonable approach he has ever seen…).

On the unhappy side, hyperbole rules.  “Travesty,” “debacle,” “abortion,” “hypocrisy,” “violence,” and “blasphemy,” are some of the conciliatory terms being used to help us toward healing.  The dividing walls of “us” and “them” are so large, it is impossible even to see the other side.  Unity, community, harmony and hope of reconciliation are receding fast.  Those who scream intolerance loudest are the least tolerant.  In a couple of settings, one group even used the song “They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love” as a weapon to silence those they disagreed with.  Such insidious intolerance does nothing to heal, only to wound with self-righteousness.  I cannot believe this is what God wants of the church.  I have been soundly criticized for my statement that I do not serve “sides,” but serve God and all who God created.  I do not believe there is a reality apart from God, therefore I serve all — young/old, black/white/brown, gay/straight, rich/poor, selfish/unselfish, sinner/saint.  I don’t have time to waste deciding who is “worthy.”  For this, I have been told I will burn in hell.  So be it.  That’s for God to decide.  Until then, I will strive to love, forgive, and serve everyone God sends my way — and I pray my church might become a little less unforgiving — for God’s sake and for our own.

14 replies

  1. Wonderfully written, Dan. As a Lay Delegate attending the conference I felt much the same way you did. At one point I remember thinking, “Man, what a bunch of whiners!”…. but in hindsight I know that the angry, indignant responses were mostly fear-based. We are dealing with very personal, sensitive concerns. People on both sides of the issues feel strongly about what they believe to be right and wrong, and both believe wholeheartedly that the Bible supports them in their beliefs. Neither seem willing to compromise. I love what you said about not serving “sides” but serving God and all those God created. My view has always been that even though I may not agree or understand with another, all God asks of me is to love them. I can do that much. God is so much bigger than what we can begin to comprehend. The negative, unloving responses are contradictory to what Jesus taught us. I agree with your observation about the youth. They were respectful and gracious. Regardless of the tension, I enjoy the conference, love seeing Christian friends, old and new…and, God willing, look forward to next year. Thanks be to God……………!

  2. Those corrosive undercurrents of which you speak are often a characteristic of any event or grouping in which we take part and your wish to take the larger view is both refreshing and much needed

  3. Sounds about like our conference in Virginia except I don’t think we were as openly nasty to one another. We elected mostly moderates to go to GC. I just want our communion to be preserved. Whatever else is true about United Methodism, I don’t think there’s another denomination where Christians across the political spectrum are in fellowship with one another. It might be forbidden to say this aloud but I wonder if it’s more important to keep that theological diversity when there are other denominations within which LGBT clergy can be ordained.

    I’m worried. But at least the property is held in trust so the renegades on whichever side of “the issue” loses in 2012 will have to find new church buildings if they want to secede.

    • I would not count on the “trust clause” to protect us from losing our buildings.
      1. The “trust clause” in under attack in Virginia and has been overturned I understand in a number of other states.
      2. We are losing entire congregations as the builder generations die and we continue to lose “market share” with younger generations. We are down to 4% for under 30s. Another report noted that we are losing 94% of the churched youth once they enter their adult years. (Book: The Orphaned Generation) If you don’t believe this is true, if your church is an “older congregation” go to your church history picture files and take a look at the size of confirmation class from 30 to 50 years ago. My congregation is down at least 1,000 members over last 40 years so.
      3. We continue to beat up on each other and seek administrative and programatic solutions to a dramatic shift in the cultural climate. Religion is hot but church membership is not. Is there hope for us? If we focus on outreach to the persons in need and creating “true community” (I know we don’t agree on the definition of true community!) we will be fine. If we fail to unify around some basic spiritual principals we will disappear. The Good News here is that God will bring forth a new creation with us or without us.

  4. One may hold a negative view of same-sex partnerships and still offer love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control to those same people. Absolutely right.

    But it seems to me that the argument for next year will not be about these fruits of the spirit, but about leadership – who do we lift up as exemplary? Or should we look upon church leadership as exemplary in any particular way? Sex and money – so much revolves around those two things. We tend to believe our church leaders should be frugal and chaste – so what if they are not? It strikes me as interesting that a male pastor who has a relationship with a female paritioner is a pariah, but one who has a relationship with a male paritioner is just be exploring his “alternative” lifestyle – so 21st century. should we not treat both the same? What about a spendthrift, or a pastor with a gambling addiction? Are those morally equivalent? Obviously a worldly argument, devoid of the fruits of the spirit, but something that still means a lot to a lot of people. How do we decide who we will uphold? Will that even be important to the next generation?

    • My point is not that anything goes, but that we can do a whole lot better in our responses and reaction. I really don’t care if a person is a sinner. My Lord calls me to love and forgive sinners. Wasting all my energy judging them and feeling superior to them and offended by them is the antithesis of Christianity, not the core. I choose personally not to spend time grinding others up and spitting them out, that’s all.

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