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.