A Heartbreak Playlist for General Conference

I was talking to my daughter about preparing as a delegate to General Conference, and she said, “Dad, you need to make a breakup playlist.” Since music has always been the

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first language of my soul, I immediately knew this was a good idea. It would be cathartic if nothing else. Here are a few that would be on my list – and some outside the hymnal and worship song charts:   

Under Pressure – David Bowie and Queen

This song is filled with happy, meaningless words uttered to block the pressure that comes when reality gets through and we notice families breaking apart, people in the streets, and the terror of knowing what the world is about. The answer to this “pretending” and “pressure” is found in that very “old fashion” word – LOVE.  This love is hard because it dares us to care and to change, as the song says.   I wonder if this is our “last dance,” or last chance, to give this witness.

What About Us – Pink

In my imagination, I hear this song as an anthem (fight song/lament/plea) from youth within the church to its leaders.  Imagine “billions of beautiful hearts…children that need to be loved” who were willing “come when we call,” deliver this indictment: “And you sold us down the river too far.”  “What about all the times you said you had the answers?  What about love?  What about trust?  What about us?  This song – this prophetic word – haunts me.  

Say Something – Christina Aguilera

This song can also be heard from the perspective of children and youth singing to the church.  The words ring in my ears – “I would have followed you.  Say something, I’m giving up on you.” With such a plea how can we be silent…or only share “under pressure” words.   

Dreaming with a Broken Heart – John Mayer

For me, the title says it all.  I continue to dream of a church where there is room for all, a church that sees diverse perspectives as a blessing that helps us fulfill our calling to learn how to love one another.  In reading the DCA and other legislation around proposals and protocols, I wonder, however, if I just need to wake up and realize that it really is “gone, gone, gone, gone, gone.”

The Heart of the Matter – Don Henley

This song keeps welling up in my soul.  I encourage you to listen – and read the words.  I invite you to join me in prayer that we would all open our hearts to the heart of the matter…

A Heartbreak Playlist

This started as a “breakup” playlist. In the process, it became more of a “heartbreak” playlist.  I am reminded that God loves a broken and contrite heart.  That’s the way love gets in – to the heart of the matter.  What songs would you add?  What if we developed a General Conference Playlist with songs meant to nurture broken hearts and cultivate softened hearts?  I wonder if the Holy Spirit might work through that.

Remembering Our Higher Calling (as we move towards GC2020 and probable division)

Love Grows Here Logo

Below is a letter sent to my congregation.  It is an invitation to embrace a higher calling at the local level in the midst of probable division at the general church level.  It’s the same message I keep sharing – although not without fear and trembling.  In this letter I do not get into my personal advocacy as much as I have in other writings. Here I want to be clear about the call to respect and honor others, even as we advocate.   I especially commend the paragraph on the need to dial back the labeling…

Dear FUMC Family,

The United Methodist Church is about to split! You may have heard this on the news recently. I can tell you that there is some truth to this rumor.  A leading proposal for the next General Conference calls for an amicable separation and the creation of two “expressions of methodism” – the United Methodist Church which will continue to be a “big tent” church that strives to welcome all into the love of Christ, and a new denomination for those who want more uniformity of opinion around certain issues.  This possible division is driven, for the most part, by different perspectives on same-sex marriage and matters of ordination.   As a delegate to the upcoming General Conference, involved in many of these conversations, I have recently come to the conclusion that some kind of division seems likely at the general and global level.  But here is my word to you as a congregation – THIS DOES NOT HAVE TO HAPPEN HERE! Please receive my reasoning with prayerful attention.

Yes, there are “irreconcilable differences” among us.  This is the term often used, especially by those who want to form a new denomination.  I do not believe, however, that such differences should lead to division, especially at the local level, where our unity is found in the call to love one another rather than in uniformity of opinion.  Our congregation is full of “irreconcilable differences.” There are major differences among us on many issues — who should be president, access to health care, the distribution of wealth, and more.  Concerning congregational life, there are big differences between a preference for hymns or praise songs, written or extemporaneous prayers, screens or no screens. Very often such perspectives are seen as integral to faith and essential for faithfulness.  And yet, we still come together at a common table. We have this intuitive sense that we are connected by a higher calling, found in scripture and given by the Holy Spirit.

The Apostle Paul expresses this higher calling very clearly. He begs us to fulfill our calling from God – to bear one another in love, with all humility, patience, and kindness, being eager to maintain the unity of spirit in the bond of peace (Eph 4:1-3). In light of this calling, differences of perspective and interpretation can be seen as a great blessing.  Our diversity enables us to practice the virtues of love.  It would be way too easy if all we had to do was love those who thought like us (See Matt 5:43-47).

This calling comes with expectations for how we live together in community. There is no place, for example, for pushing personal agenda or insisting on our own way – except that we will honor different perspectives and approaches to ministry, in a spirit of patience and kindness.  We can insist on that! (See I Cor 13:4-7). This calling requires us to focus our attention on cultivating safe sanctuaries where all can discover who they are in relationship with God. This calling invites much humility when it comes to our understanding of personal journeys and identity, while at the same time, offering resources to help all grow in faithfulness and love.

Dear FUMC Family, as we begin a new year together, I ask you to affirm your commitment to this higher calling – to keep our eyes on the ball, so to speak.  Our community and the world need this witness.  To retreat into like-minded camps that promote division, polarization, and extremism does not glorify God. For this to happen in the church is truly following the ways of the world.  We have the chance to be a part of something so much bigger – something holy.  We have the opportunity to be a church that offers a life of faithfulness and love to all.

To fulfill this calling, we need to dial back the labeling of ourselves and others – traditionalist, conservative, liberal, progressive, centrist.   While these qualifiers have a place, it is not good to define human beings (including ourselves) in one-dimensional terms.  We are more than that!  People who want “progress” in terms of inclusion, may be very traditional when it comes to their affinity for liturgy and creeds.  They may want this “progress” because of their understanding of the living tradition of the church.  People who love what is contemporary may also be very interested in affirming what they see as traditional values that are life-giving and needed for communities to thrive.  People in the middle may not need to be defined as “wishy washy” or uncommitted; it takes great spiritual strength to balance grace and holiness, head and heart, as well as traditional and progressive expressions of faithfulness.  To fulfill our calling, we must focus on honoring and respecting one another, more than labeling and judging.  We can also learn from one another! Again, let us not give in to the ways of the world.

We are starting the year 2020. As a congregation, we are using this number 2020 to talk about God’s vision for us.  We want to see ourselves more clearly the way God sees us.  At one level, we can think of all the people in the scriptures who were being told that they were not of the same value as others – foreigners, fishermen, tax collectors, women, children, gentiles – and Jesus includes them and called them into the kingdom of heaven where we learn to treat others as beloved children of God..  He invited them to see themselves in a new light – in the light of God’s love and God’s calling.  May we be the church that shares this word – “You are valued.” “You are a blessing to the world.” “You have a calling to fulfill.”

Whatever happens at General Conference in May, know this: Ministry will continue in and through our community of faith.  For the immediate months following General Conference, we are already planning mission trips, youth trips, summer adventure camp, WOW Camp, Music Camp, Summer Feeding Ministry, and Summer Alternative Worship experiences – and that’s just in the couple of months after General Conference.  We all get to be a part of it.

In this letter I have wanted to inform you, but hopefully not scare you away.  In fact, my hope is the opposite of that. May all the struggles and tensions in our church and in our culture lead us not into a spirit of fear and despair, but into a desire to fulfill the calling God has placed upon us.  May we indeed bear one another in love and express our eagerness to maintain unity in spirit.  The larger church and the world need this witness.  I wholeheartedly believe that God is calling us to lead the way in this community.   May Love Grow Here!!!

Blessings,

Pastor Michael

Beyond the Nightmare (Comparing Plans for GC2020 at an Arkansas UMC Next Gathering, Sept 2019)

IMG_4576Unity vs. Schism

There is a new primary choice before us – unity or schism.  Before we look at the plans, I want these words to linger for a moment.  I want us to remember our calling “to maintain the unity of spirit in the bond of peace” and to do so with humility, patience, and kindness (Eph 4:1-3). With this calling planted in our hearts, most of us here were willing to adopt the One Church Plan – and not for some vague sense of “unity” but real and incarnate unity where we stayed at the table together and learned how to love one another in the midst of our differences.  We believed that would truly glorify God.  Yet, as we know, this plan crashed and burned…But out of this burning we have also witnessed a fire being kindled in many hearts.

In the light of this growing sacred-fire, there is a renewed commitment to unity, but with a nuanced understanding. Unity of spirit does not necessarily mean unity of organizational togetherness. To build upon the values that we have named as Arkansas Uniting Methodists, we want “unity in love rather than uniformity by law.” We want to cultivate sacred communities where there is “room for all.” We want to give witness to the unity found in God’s beloved community, in God’s kin-dom.

What about the word “schism?”  Schism is divorce on a community scale where groups within the body intentionally pull others away.  You will notice that this word in not used in the plans before us.  Instead we have notions of dissolution, new expressions, and the multiplication of our witness.  I will say that there is merit to seeing things from a different perspective.  This often leads to better outcomes.  Thus, it may not be schism at all.  At the same time, I believe it is important to ask if we are just putting a “silk dress on a pig” (as the saying goes). We need to be honest with ourselves and each other about this and our motives.

As I read these plans, and prepare as a delegate, it seems inevitable that we are moving towards schism, division, “multiplication of our witness.”  We seemed determined to “give into culture” in this way.   I have no doubt that God can work for good in the midst of this, but that does not mean it glorifies God.  I still suspect that God would be more glorified in our efforts to stay at the holy table together and learn how to love one another, instead of retreating into our own bubbles. If we take this course, we will need to find new ways to live into the clear calling that we have been given and find new ways to forge true unity.

With that introduction, let’s look at three plans, and then the one plan that is about to become policy.

The Indianapolis Plan

This plan was developed by leaders from each “camp,” including representation from the WCA.  It starts with the premise that there are “irreconcilable differences” among us and that we need to get beyond the “vitriolic” atmosphere that has marked our conversation for so long. Therefore, we need to “send one another into our respective mission fields to multiply our witness to Christ.”  (I do wonder if “respective mission fields” is code for like-minded camps or if it is dressing up a pig). This plan takes great pains to avoid the notion of dissolving the church. What we know as the United Methodist Church would stay with the centrist/progressive branch – boards, agencies, etc.  Then, we would “give birth” to a new expression of the church for traditionalists (I find this image of being asked to help “give birth” somewhat disturbing…). This “new expression” would share some resources like Wespath, UMCOR, UMW, and Publishing. There would be a formula for allocating resources among the bodies, including future apportionments.  After blessing this new expression, then this plan would remove all restrictive language and the language of “incompatibility” around same-sex marriages and ordination.  Conferences, congregations, and clergy would make decisions about alignment, with a simple majority as the rule.  If no vote is taken, the default would be the centrist/progressive Church (The UMC) in the U.S. Interestingly, Annual Conferences in Central Conferences would default to the traditionalist branch.

UMC Next Proposal

This proposal starts by envisioning a UMC that welcomes everyone, nurtures devoted disciples of Jesus Christ, and equips our members to live as salt and light in the world. It calls us to reclaim the spiritual zeal and creativity of our Wesleyan heritage.   It keeps the UMC intact by allowing for greater regional autonomy and freedom to engage in ministry within diverse missional context. In this way it honors the diverse global nature of the church.  It directly affirms our doctrinal standards and core beliefs. And then, in the light of these values and beliefs, this plan removes “language and policies…that are harmful to and exclusive of LGBTQ persons.”  It affirms the ability of pastors to determine readiness for marriage and annual conference to determine criteria for ordination.  After offering a vision of what we can be as a denomination, this plan provides methods and resources for groups of churches to form new expressions of methodism. The plan acknowledges that separation can be a faithful step that honors those who experience a call to move in different directions. It grounds this possibility in the story of Paul, Barnabas, and Mark and thus gives the notion of multiplication biblical roots (Acts 15:37-40) and combines this with the life-giving theological language of respect, partnerships, and cooperation in ministry. The proposal ends by moving us back to vision and calls for a “commission on the 21st century church” to prepare a “comprehensive structure and governance plan…”  For a couple of other details, this proposal endorses a proposal from the Connectional Table to create regional conferences and calls for professional mediation to help all parties move forward.  In terms of voting, local church disaffiliation would require a 2/3 majority – an option available for a limited time.

The Bard -Jones Plan

Named for the two bishops that developed it, this plan is similar to the Connectional Conference Plan that came out of the Way Forward Commission, but never got much traction at the time.  Like the Indy Plan, this plan starts with the premise that we must find a way to address our division.  It starts by highlighting our options. 1. Relying on the legislative processes of Conference to make changes. 2. Groups just decide to leave.  3. A “forced schism,” through trials and active disobedience. Or 4 (the shining light)- to negotiate a new unity, a new connectionalism, and a mutual blessing for the parting of ways.  This plan calls for the creation of two or three self-governing branches – an “open” branch initially operating under the “simple plan,” a “traditional” branch operating under the “traditional plan,” and perhaps a “progressive” branch with a strengthen version of the “simple plan.” The United Methodist Church would be an umbrella organization, for the purpose of sharing in mission and organization support.

The Traditional Plan  

As with the rhetorical device, use in the Bard/Jones Plan, where three bad options are given to lead to new option, there is a parallel here. All three of these plans look good in the light of the one plan that was passed at GC2019 – the traditional plan (soon to be policy).  This is the big ugly elephant in the room – a plan that defines unity as uniformity, that establishes strict mandatory penalties for anyone who violates certain, that requires oaths in order to be in certain leadership positions, that creates a globally elected body to enforce particular rules, a body likened by our Judicial Council to an “inquisitional court.” And it was all passed knowing that much of it would be ruled unconstitutional.  One possibility before us is that General Conference will be about perfecting this plan.  And, that my friends, is my nightmare.  Even many who have more traditional views on particular topics are opposed to these draconian measures. They do not honor Christ or glorify God.

So, in comparison to this plan/policy, all the others look great! We need to keep that in mind. In terms of big outcomes, any of these plans (or some combination) would allow for the formation of a church that truly aspires to the values that we have named as Arkansas Uniting Methodists:

  • Unity in Love rather than Uniformity by Law, where we come together at the holy table and give witness to the royal law of love.
  • Making Room for All and cultivating the values of inclusiveness and diversity as strengths that give witness to God’s beloved community (God’s kingdom) in our midst.
  • A High(er) View of Scripture where we honor the whole of scripture, interpret through key concepts as Jesus did, and move beyond proof-texting to affirm prejudices and opinions.
  • Wesleyan Holiness, defined through the virtues of humility, patience, and gentleness rather than through judgment of others and zeal for our own righteousness.
  • A Sexual Ethic Rooted in Values rather than Personal Identity, an ethic rooted in the values of monogamy, faithfulness, commitment, and the virtues summed up with the word love.

Beyond the Nightmare

Before our discussion, I want to elaborate on the nightmare that haunts me.  What if we are not able to pave any path for a church that cultivate these values. What if we don’t have the votes, even after the wave of support that occurs in the US?  (It is not unlike what we witnessed in St. Louis). What if I’m sitting there and I realize that it is not going to happen – at least in the legislative arena.  Can I (we) just sit there as more harm is done?

One image that comes to mind is something that happened at Annual Conference a couple of years ago when a group of women made the decision to excuse themselves from the bar of the conference abstaining from a vote on a resolution in support of women in ministry.  While acknowledging that the resolution was well-intended, it was reasoned that they did not want to subject themselves to the possible harm of becoming, once again, an “issue” to be justified and defended, or by having to vote, once again, on their own legitimacy.  And so, they chose a response that I believe honored our shared covenant.

I’m not totally sure what to make of this comparison, but I have a couple of reflections. First, resolutions are by nature contentious and designed to divide.  They may be well intended and still cause harm. Often there are better way to make affirmations. In the same way, our whole legislative process is often contentious and can cause much harm.  Acknowledging this, and as a small step, it is important to notice the language of the plans and ask: Do they come from a heart of love or do they mask other motives? Do they flow out of the values we have named, and if so, give the possibility for healing rather than harm? The hope is that we will let our values guide us through the turbulent waters of legislation. For a second connection, and more provocative, I wonder if we need some kind of contingency plan, for all supporters of an open and inclusive church, to possibly excuse ourselves and go to another room to work on a new way forward – while we are conveniently there in Minneapolis.  It is a big question mark at this point, but I do wonder.

I certainly hope that kind of action will not be needed.  I hope I will be able to say in hindsight, “Oh that was just a nightmare.” May our Lord help us see all of this through the light of love divine. May it be so.