A few disclaimers before I launch into my ranting and raving. I fully understand that people come to impasses that they refuse to negotiate. There are non-negotiables in life; things we simply will not budge on. Also, there are behaviors, attitudes and actions that are widely and generally viewed as wrong, evil, violent and unacceptable. There are things people are willing to die for; I get that. Often in our culture, we hear people claim that they must separate over “irreconcilable differences,” and this where, with the above disclaimers in place, I say “bunk.”
Ours is a faith of human agency and free will. All differences are reconcilable until such time we decide they are not. We are responsible for our own attitudes, beliefs, values, and actions, and we are quickly becoming a culture of blame that abdicates personal responsibility to defend every action we take as being caused externally, by someone else, by “those people.” We are willing to split a church because we want to, not because we have to.
Winning is the driving force in our United States national and ecclesial culture at the moment. Nothing else seems to matter but getting our own way. This seems true at the individual, communal, and societal levels. When we can’t have our way, we simply quit the game, take our ball, and go home. It is easier this way. We don’t have to share, we don’t have to work hard, we don’t have to struggle – we just congregate with the like-minded, the like-hearted, and the like-valued and the rest of the world can go to hell. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a counter-cultural alternative?
Oh, wait. There is. It is called Christianity, and one of the sub-brands (United Methodism) has several organizing principles that define it. Here are just a few:
- Mission: making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world
- Historic vision: spread scriptural holiness across the land (not a strict adherence to the Law, but an unrestricted sharing of God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ)
- Focus on grace: prevenient, justifying, sanctifying
- Focus on global missions, social justice, relational evangelism – with emphasis on ministry with the poor and outcast
- Grounded in the Great Commandment: love the Lord your God with all your heart, and soul, and mind, and strength; and in the General Rules to: first, do no harm, second, do all the good you can, and third, attend to the ordinances of God (prayer, worship, study of scripture, acts of mercy, fasting, sacraments, Christian conference (conversation about the Christian faith)
So, these are the things that we hold in common; the things that make us who we are in our expression of the body of Christ; the things that define our core values. Reflect on this list and determine our irreconcilable differences, the things of enough importance to destroy our covenant of baptism and fellowship. No, we have to ignore all of this in order to find something to justify taking our ball and going home.
As I have stated before, I believe our current obsession with LGBTQIA+ personhood is merely the latest presenting issue in a much longer and larger debate over the interpretation of scripture, the authority of the Bible, the relationship of Hebrew and Christian writings and meaning, and our confusion about who God is. We are not engaging in healthy and meaningful ways with our core issues, choosing instead to raucously debate who is acceptable and who is not, using it as an excuse to do what we want to regardless. True, open, honest exploration frightens too many people; we might learn something, we might have to change – and we would have to acknowledge all the ways we have been wrong (and yes, just as everyone is right to some degree, we are all wrong to a certain degree, as well).
You know that I come at things from a rationalistic researcher mind (yet, I am also a mystic…) and that I value evidence; that I work very hard to explore multiple sides and perspectives, and I make judgments based on that which makes the most sense to me. I also am fully cognizant that not everyone processes life this way; in fact, I am in the minority. So, I share just two recent illustrations that define part of the challenges of reconciling differences.
A while ago, I spoke at a theologically moderate-to-conservative congregation pastored by a very conservative licensed local pastor. A woman in the congregation asked me to speak in greater detail on a statement I made that, biblically, the idea of “homosexuality” had almost nothing to do with sexual morality but communal mores and culture. As I started to explain, the pastor jumped in and shut me down, telling the gathered crowd that we weren’t there for Bible study, but a presentation on the outcome of the special session of General Conference. When the meeting ended, a jolly older woman came up, put a hand on my arm, and said, “You really must forgive our pastor. He tries so hard to protect us from the things he doesn’t believe in.” A small group of women asked me if they could take me out to lunch because they really wanted to hear my explanation and have further conversation. We had a lovely lunch, I walked them through the purity codes of Leviticus, the communal morality of property and bloodline, and the governing value of “be fruitful and multiply, and I will make of you a great nation.” Rarely have I had a more rapt or respectful audience, and the big question they asked was, “But why haven’t we heard this before?”
My answer to them was another story. I once got into a “debate” with a pastor in Tennessee over the human sexuality topic. Each of shared not only our reasoning and understanding, but we were asked to provide documentation and substantiation for our positions. I provided a three page precis with books and articles from across the entire theological spectrum, pro and con, noting where I found convincing information and where I found the information flawed or false. My opponent simply stated, “this is what I was taught at Asbury,” – no documentation, no research, no exploration. I told the table of women at lunch that pastors simply teach what we believe and think we know; we can’t teach what we haven’t learned.
I find the kind of open curiosity exhibited by the older women from this congregation almost everywhere I go, but I also encounter the blind resistance of the pastor every bit as often. I doubt that any amount of information or discussion will be effective in changing his thinking or even his willingness to engage. For many people, evidence and information are all but irrelevant. Unless they experience something empirically and essentially, there is no reason to think differently. We have seen this so often during the pandemic period. I remember watching a testimony of a big ol’ biker-dude, sobbing as he shared his heartfelt plea to take COVID-19 seriously. He told how he thought the coronavirus was a liberal hoax and a government conspiracy and he refused to wear a mask or stay home. He defied every rule for months, then he got COVID-19. His wife, his mother, and his sister got COVID and died. His younger brother got it, survived it, but will carry a lifelong respiratory disability with him. He sat with tears running into his beard, muttering, “I am so sorry. I didn’t know. I was stupid. I didn’t know. Don’t be stupid. Don’t be like me.” Information, evidence, science – all irrelevant. Personal experience is the way many people learn. How many people have changed their minds and hearts about LGBTQIA+ personhood only when they discover that a loved family member or friend is included in that population? Information is too abstract for many (remember the disciple Thomas?); personal experience is more concrete.
My other recent encounter was with a gentleman that contacted the bishop’s office to complain about a message calling for our Wisconsin churches to extend “God’s unconditional love and unmerited grace” to all people, especially those with whom we disagree. I phoned this man after he wrote, “It is a travesty when a layman (sic) has to teach the Bishop and his assistant the Bible. You should not be allowed to lead if you don’t even know your scriptures.” We were having a basically civil conversation on the phone when I asked, “So, where did you study the Bible?” He paused, then admitted that he hadn’t really studied the Bible and hadn’t been to a Sunday school class or Bible study in over 30 years, but that he did read his King James Bible every night. And he then said, “and it never mentions unconditional love or unmerited grace once in the whole Bible!” I countered that while the identical words might not occur in a translation from 1611, the concepts are very strong and evident in the Greek. He snapped back at me, “I don’t give a good goddamn what some Greeks think of my Bible!” I thanked him, wrapped up the conversation, and shook my head. Sometimes the terrain to reconciliation is awfully steep.
What it comes down to for me is a simple choice: do I give up or keep fighting? Is covenant community in Christ worth fighting for? Does our baptism mean anything? Is the imagery of the body of Christ a joke? Our differences are our differences and they are real, but are they irreconcilable, insurmountable, and irredeemable? Only if we allow them to be, only if we choose to make them. But maybe the best option is to give up – who wants to force someone into communion? Perhaps we simply lack the maturity and faith to be “one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.” I choose to believe we can be better than we think we are.