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.
Dan, you have hit the nail on the head with your statement: “Sin is the complete and absolute abdication of common sense in favor of selfishness. How’s that for a definition?”. Just not in the way you think. Who defines common sense and what is it actually? As I observe the goings on in my own church, our conference, and much of the US UMC it looks more and more like we’re just another NGO trying to do good in the world. Pragmatism has become our god. In all the reading of reports from the GC I have not read one sentence of concern for the lost. Not one! In his chapter, Nice People, New Men in Mere Christianity, C.S Lewis talks about the difference between producing better men of the old kind versus producing a new kind of man (which only God can do). We have settled for wanting to produce better men of the old kind and we’re failing miserably. Jesus came to seek and save that which was lost but we have conformed to the world and in our arrogance think we can fix things through “common sense” measures rather than partnering with God to redeem and transform the lost.
As for common sense, we have none. Because we have become truth suppressors in unrighteousness and ungodliness, God has given us over to a depraved mind to do what ought not be done. We have gone all the way back to the fall and bought Satan’s lie: “Did God really say?” It is so blatantly obvious yet we can’t see it because a depraved mind is blind to the things of God. So what does that mean for “common sense”? We have none and you can see it playing out at the GC. The only hope is a worldwide call for true biblical repentance within our own denomination and a crying out God to take us back because we have become the lost.
Dan, I have read your blog for the last several years and occasionally even commented…maybe twice. I am writing in today over this one statement “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.”
Everything else I see as spot on…from my comfortable chair no where near Oregon…I have heard from local congregations that they feel that their church locally reflects the appropriate values…the moderate discussions that you propose having can be had in these groups…neighbors can and do hold each other accountable in ways strangers can not. That awful language rarely comes up when you know you have to live with it for awhile. Many in my local congregation see the violence and hurt perpetrated in their names and feel alienated from the church body. It is from this place that talks of separation are coming for us. Ignorance and malice play a part…they are driving the wedge, they are not the motivation.
My dubiousness about Rule 44 and on what happened yesterday is what do you expect to happen? We tried small groups in 2012 and they were a dismal failure by all accounts. When you had the practice small groups at the beginning of Conference, they were a mess. What do you expect any type of truly “balanced” commission to actually come up with? We would be a lot better off if a series of test votes were done for different alternatives and then something was put together. But, when you look at the slimness of the margins on the original request for the Bishops, the Hamilton motion and the Howard motion, where do you see a majority coming from? Chris Ritter’s Love Alike isn’t “perfect” but it is about the best you are going to get.
Instead, at this point, General Conference will have voted to kick the can down the road and have an unformed commission make a proposal to a called General Conference. Is there going to be a moratorium on public disobedience in the meantime? If not, those “moderates” or “low information voters” who flipped back and forth on things are going to wind up voting against any changes because our trust will have been further eroded.
I disagree. What we have tried in the past was a half-assed (pardon me, but I am too tired to think of a politically correct alternative) attempt predicated on the false assumption that Christians know how to talk about things in a civil and reasoned manner. The other missing pieces were adequate information processing to help people distinguish fact from opinion and good information from rhetoric. Then, we “trained” people as if they were in the third grade doing an art project. There has never been a systematic approach to collective communication dynamics training to help us engage in any way that we don’t already know and do poorly. People assume they are good communicators because they talk all the time. Very few people are good communicators, and very few people are ever guided through systems and processes that help them improve. While we have processed the same conversation repeatedly for forty years, we have yet to begin communicating.
We’ll never know what would have happened had we tried Rule 44 but it would have been different from what you are experiencing now. The process involved small groups, extraordinary questions to guide conversation and a report to the body with action points coming from the creative action of the spirit. We would have had concrete information on where we were without the emotional angst oresent now and the games to botch the system.
What floored me was the lack of courage from the delegates to lean into a new way of being.
Was 44 perfect? No. But is wasn’t the disaster we have now. It’s time to find another way of making decisions!
AH HA !!
Here it is!