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

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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

Is There Grace in Gracious Exits?

Around the Way Forward there is much talk about the need for legislation that allows clergy, congregations, and conferences to exit the denomination without penalty.  The proposal is being called “Gracious Exit.” I get the rationale at a surface level, and may even be put in a position to employ it, but I also find it theologically disturbing.  Here are my prayerful musings.

Using the word grace in this context feels like a violation to me.  Grace is a theologically charged word. Grace is much more than a synonym for “kind,” “polite,” or “civil.”  To attempt to define it, grace is the unmerited gift of relationship with the One who is above all, in all, and through all. Grace is knowing that we are not alone and that nothing can separate us from God’s love.  Grace is being included into something bigger than ourselves, indeed into an infinitely larger community where we get to practice the virtues of patience, kindness, humility, forgiveness, never insisting on our own way, and bearing one another in love – virtues not really needed in like-minded religious clubs or if grace is seen only as a personal transaction.  Grace holds all labels loosely.  Grace always works for reconciliation and unity, and in this work challenges our prejudices and holds up a mirror to our narrowly-defined agendas to secure our own comfort and get our own way.  It is this challenge that makes grace hard to accept or trust because this grace requiring so much sacrifice and even more humility.  Faith in something beyond ourselves and our own efforts is so hard, and that’s what is needed to know God’s grace. And so, we often turn away from grace in order to promote our own religious agenda.  And here is the really good news about grace; even in our self-righteousness, grace remains and works for good.  That’s what makes grace so amazing!

In recent days I have heard calls from several “camps” to allow for gracious exits as a part of our Way Forward.  I have heard people call for this freedom to “depart and thrive.”  Often, it feels much more like an invitation for others to leave, wrapped in polite or “gracious” language.  Many want this so that “the issue” will go away and so we can stop talking about it.  It just doesn’t feel right to me to use this sacred word to justify easy divorce and civil schism.  Grace is what beckons us to the common table, not to divide it.  Grace is what allows us to find our true selves in the presence of the Other and “others.”  Grace is knowing we are not alone, and thus the challenge to build life-giving relationships and to truly learn how to love.  Grace is the hard work of our calling.

Yes, we can be polite and civil in our eagerness for divorce, but I wonder, are we denying or cheapening grace in the process? While God can work for good in all things, will we be able to “thrive” with any sense of faithfulness to anything “Other” than ourselves, if we make divorce and cheap grace the accepted norm?   Perhaps our divisions and differences are not “impeding our mission,” as some claim, but are the very realities that make it possible for us to truly fulfill our mission and offer something truly life-giving to the world.  I wonder.

If we make this policy, what are the unintended consequences? Would it not be the de-facto demise of the denomination? What would hold the covenant together in terms of accepting things like apportionments or appointments? Could congregations come and go depending on the current climate?  Could congregations apply this same grace to staying instead of exiting, continuing to act upon the spirit of our doctrine and discipline, as they see it, and with the grace of their contextual colleagues and conference, until another who can claim to have never committed disciplinary sin is thus able to act in righteousness, instead of grace, and start casting stones? (Which may be a good way to look at it).  I wonder and will continue to pray for deeper understanding.