For most people in relationship, the words “we need to talk,” rarely bode well. The “we need to talk” talk generally comes as a “so long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, goodbye” turning point, and this seems to be where about 11% of United Methodists (and 15% of General Conference delegates) think we are. However, our Council of Bishops (and myself, for that matter) feel we are at the “we need to talk before the ‘we need to talk’ talk” stage of relational evolution. This is a call to “communication” which got lost in all our posturing years ago. And as I have said before, this is on us. We tried the path of least resistance for about 22 years and now we are shocked that things aren’t better. Go figure.
Where this metaphor breaks down is that a church is not a love relationship or a marriage, so breaking up, divorce, “amicable separation” are really not options. Who sees “amicable” in any of the problems we are having this week? When you are dealing with an institution of millions of diverse people, spanning the entire planet, with assets, resources, programs, and investments in hundreds of thousands of communities, there is no path of least resistance. Those who want to separate either want to destroy what we have and hurt untold thousands (perhaps millions) of people, or they proceed in abject ignorance.
But, in my humble and limited opinion, we do something counter-productive whenever we have a disagreement: we turn a relational, fundamental identity reality into an “issue”. Racism isn’t an “issue”. Sexism isn’t an “issue”. Human trafficking isn’t an “issue”. Homosexuality isn’t an “issue”. These are realities of human rights, human personhood, and the dignity of humankind. These are relational realities that we do not have the right to reduce to “issues”. But we do it all the time.
In our Christian faith, we have a simple touchstone: as we do to one another, we do to Christ. As we speak and act toward our neighbor, we broadcast loud and clear how we define our love of God. When I call someone a name, I am calling God that name. When I exclude a child of God, I exclude Jesus the Christ. When I deny personhood to a brother or sister, I reject Jesus. I am not saying this is THE TRUTH, but it is the way I live my life based on the way I understand scripture. It is my way. You may have a different way.
I cannot vote on who I think belongs in the body of Christ. It simply isn’t my call. This wisdom belongs first to God, who I believe created all people in the Divine image. God also defines the body of Christ. God also gifts all human beings. All of us are children of God. Only secondarily — and based on what I just wrote — the body together helps people find their place in the body. I am deeply uncomfortable with the community of faith ever saying to a child of God “there is no place in Christ’s body for you.”. But I want to be clear. This isn’t my liberal progressive message to conservatives to accept gays: this includes the most sincere fundamentalist, the most conflicted evangelical, and the person who believe the Bible was written first and always in King James English. All, in my vocabulary, does mean all, and I am not interested in defining my Christian faith and my Christian church in terms of “winners and losers”, those who belong and those who don’t.
And to the question of sin. Do we tolerate sin? Do we give a toehold to evil? What is our fixation on sin? Sin is the complete and absolute abdication of common sense in favor of selfishness. How’s that for a definition? All of us are broken, incomplete, flawed, sinful, trouble-making problems-to-be-solved. The solution to this is two-fold: we need a Savior and we need a community. Luckily, we have a Savior. We ALL have Jesus, thank God. But the community we need is not a pristine and perfect, antiseptic, pure, unsullied paradise. It is the shower-room. It is the bath house. It is the refiner’s fire where we are trained and taught and encouraged and cajoled and held accountable to practice the means of grace that God might work a perfecting miracle within each one of us individually, and together as one body. Community is where we’ve got each others’ backs, regardless of whether we like or agree with each other. When we are admonished to work out our own salvation (plural/communal, not individual) with fear and trembling, we are suppose to take “fear and trembling” seriously. This is not easy work, not for the faint of heart. We NEED each other or we cannot achieve the vision God has for us. We can only discern the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect — together; and this means we need to be tolerant, merciful, grace-filled, kind and patient.
The bishops are calling us to talking and conversing, not as an event, not as a process, not as a tool, but as a new way of engaging and being together. We need to have regular, guided, focused conversations that lead us not to agreement, but to understanding; not to uniformity, but to unity; not to majority rule, but to real consensus. As we do to each other, we do to God; as we wish to do for God, let us do for each other.