Drawing on the saying “we’ve painted ourselves in a corner,” I want to offer a metaphor/analogy. Imagine if you will a ballroom. Large, open, massive space, with a sizeable floor. Four groups begin in the middle of the room to paint the floor, each moving in different directions toward a respective corner. They are efficient in their work, making amazing progress, until they find themselves painted into the four corners — no way to move without undoing the hard work already accomplished, and as far apart from each other as it is possible to get and still be in the same room. This is my analogy for the current state of General Conference in microcosm and The United Methodist Church in the macro.
One corner is “biblical authority,” one corner is “progressive inclusion,” one corner is “moral probity,” and the last is “institutional preservation”. Now, the four corners share much in common. They are all baptized “employees” of the same company. They worship the same Lord, in other words, work for the same boss. But when it comes to the definitive “mission of the business” they part company. For years, they have coexisted, bound together by the sacred tie that binds. Faith, grace, service, and sacramental identity have been enough to “make us one in the Lord.”. Not so much today, because from our respective corner, we can only see the whole room one way — from our own limited perspective. Biblical authority cries “comparability with scripture” — but only on certain parts and pieces of scripture, because, come on, if we took it all too seriously we would end up excluding everyone! Progressive inclusion wants “all to mean all,” but is very fuzzy on who they will tolerate or listen to and who they will not. They fall into the “only open-minded individuals need apply” mentality, which then excludes less open-minded individuals and unintentionally (or intentionally) demonizes those who disagree. The moral probity corner wants to do what is right, good and holy, but too often from a post-Enlightenment, Western moral construct. They forget that morals emerge from the cultural and communal covenants of conduct that work to serve the common good and not individual rights and entitlements. They also forget that it is not helpful to overlay modern, contemporary moralities onto primitive and pre-modern writings. Not merely an “apples and oranges” mis-comparison but more an “apple and table legs” debacle. And the institutional preservation folks have confused ends with means, and have completely forgotten what the church is and why it exists. The church isn’t the organization we convene to legislate; the church is the whole people of God living their faith in the world that relies on our organization to help them do this effectively and faithfully.
And so, we stand in our corners, viewing others at the threatening “them” we must defeat. We are the true painters in the ballroom whose work is best — never considering that we are as painted in as the other “thems”. And you know what is saddest of all? The ballroom floor doesn’t need painting. It is fine just the way God made it. Ballroom floors are created for dancing. The longer we mess around with the painting, the longer it will take for us to actually get back out on the dance floor and use it as intended. We are so worried about tracking through the job we’ve done that we have almost crippled the General Conference/The United Methodist Church. God is in the dance, not in the paint. God is looking for the art of movement, not the art of maintenance. I think God would much rather see us drop and our brushes and take one another’s hands for a twirl upon the dance floor. The binary thinking that reduces everything we say and do to who is right and who is wrong is killing us, and it is unnecessary.
When I was in college, I found myself with the opportunity to dance with a girl I had a huge crush on. As I took her hand and started to dance with her, I began stammering and stumbling to make some kind of conversation and hopefully make a good impression. It wasn’t going very well, and I thought I was blowing it completely — talking myself into a corner. She grinned at me at one point, broke into a big smile, and said, simply, “Shut up and dance.”. Is there wisdom in this command for us gathered here in Portland. I can’t help but think there is. I believe we would provide a much more compelling vision for our broken world if we could simply shut up and dance together.