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. “I do get the feeling that we don’t listen to one another, and if we did, we could actually find some common ground.” Primal territoriality views common ground as defeat, death, extinction, even damnation. Fear drives us into primal state. Only Hope can coax us out of it.

  2. Dan, I too walked away from this conference feeling much the same way you did. The attitude of victimization was very apparent at this conference and I feel is the underlying theme for many these days.
    You talked about building bridges. I see too many people building road blocks. I suppose it’s the human side of us that leads people to do this, but in Christ we must seek to build the bridges of hope and unity. This reminds me of a wonderful song titled “Love Can Build a Bridge.”
    Acceptance and love are hard for many. But as you, I do not serve sides, I serve Christ. And if you’re going to hell, well I will be meeting you there!

  3. Thank you Dan. Being a more introspective individual, I was not as aware of some of the grumbling going on. Yes, registration at the hotel was a mess, but I really don’t think it was intended against anyone – just the way it was. I do feel the divisivness in the body. I tend to like to stay in the middle ground (where I can be hit by traffic on both sides – LOL) and it is difficult to find a place to stand. There is a lot of “if you aren’t with us, you are against us” feeling coming from everywhere. I do get the feeling that we don’t listen to one another, and if we did, we could actually find some common ground.

  4. I have just returned from the Virginia Annual Conference. The worship was powerful. The sermons hit home. The music was wonderful. The conference reflected the diversity of the denomination. There was even transparency in our discussions of the challenges that face a denomination that continues to shrink. The election of delegates to General and Jurisdictional Conference went about as well as one could hope for although I was left with a few concerns. We were reasonably respectful of differing views on the matter of sexual orientation. We voted down a proposal to change the Discipline on this matter, as one would expect in a relatively conservative conference. The Virginia Conference is not quite ready to involve homosexual persons in ordained ministry in spite of the retired bishops appeal. This was cause for sorry or rejoicing depending upon what side of that issue you were on. We presented evidence of growth in a number of situations through the “All Things New” initiative. Thanks be to God!

    Still, I was troubled. For the most part, we are still trying to please “all sides” in what I call a policy of appeasement rather than looking for a deeper understanding of our mission in the wisdom of God. At times within our worship events the idea of diving down much deeper into spiritual waters to discover a call that reaches beyond our differences and joins us together in mission did appear. Yet, I sense we really did not embrace that challenge. In Dr. Sam Well’ s preaching that call was crystal clear. While we nodded in agreement I am not sure we have the stomach to act upon his prophetic words for action would mean enduring the initial resistance and division before the fruit would appear.

    Nor did I sense that our conference had come to grips with the dramatic cultural changes that require imagination and improvisational skills driven by the wisdom of the Holy Spirit in order to make a meaningful different. I did not sense a willingness to endure the sacrifice, pain and suffering that comes with following Jesus in a radical way. Following Jesus scares us too much and so we retreat into “attractional” ministry patterns in hopes of pleasing and entertaining a few more folks rather than changing the world. I seems we prefer the slow death of our denomination over Christ’s call to radical transformation.

    Awe, but there’s still time and hope springs eternal! The Church of Jesus Christ has appeared to be dead and buried a number of times and God has moved every time to resurrect it again. When that happens as I know it will, I hope United Methodist congregations are found among those who have died with Christ in order to be raised with Christ!

  5. Dan, I felt this as well and wasn’t as engaged as you. I went away with an anxiety level far above any previous year – but was chalking it up to the late date of my move and family health issues that loomed greatly in front of me for the past two weeks. One item, however, needs clarification/correction. As United Methodists, we don’t place a person on trial for their orientation, do we? I understand that the undercurrents you speak about are certainly there. Homophobia is a reality for a number of people. But, as I understand the forthcoming trial, the charges are for specific actions, not orientation.

    It’s also interesting to note that the theme for our conference was “Love unconditionally.” It’s a great phrase as a goal, but I think it is impossible for us humans to accomplish this. The filters we use, our world views, theology, philosophies… these all cloud our ability to truly love without conditions. But this conference certainly showed that words do hurt. And self-interest is huge not only at this conference, but also in our local churches. We’ve lost the larger vision of God’s promised land and we’re grumbling and complaining just like the Israelites when they reached the desert of Sin and complained bitterly to Moses.

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