From the Pastor’s Desk…
How do we speak with a prophetic voice without breaking relationships? How can the Christian be authentically Christian in a multicultural society without bullying (or be bullied)? What is the response of those who are called to turn the other cheek and to love the enemy when the enemy is intent on not only killing us and destroying our way of life, but also are intent upon killing the innocent and destroying others’ ways of life? What does it mean to walk the via media (the Middle Way) in a “Big Tent” church? These are hard questions. Indeed, not one of these questions can be answered well in so short a space. And yet these are the questions that I find that we must address in this difficult and often confusing time.
Our country is more polarized than at any time since Vietnam. With that, the Church (all Christian churches), and our dear United Methodist Church, are divided along partisan lines. If you are like me, you find discussions about the events of the world difficult, even with friends. After all, we are all horrified by the events in Syria (and North Korea…and wherever there was a mass shooting this week…and…) but how we are to respond to these events – as a country, as a church, as individuals – is often a contentious point. I don’t have so many friends that I can afford to lose them just because we disagree over politics. I find that my life is enriched when I am influenced by those who disagree with me. And it doesn’t seem right that a difference of opinions about terrorism (or homosexuality or refugees or politics or race or…) should rend friendships. And yet here we are.
The competing instincts of placating and appeasing others in order to maintain peace (on the one hand) and screaming our deeply held world-view in hopes of making an impact (on the other) pull and tug, each demanding our attention. These instincts find their roots in our faith tradition; I’d say that we come by them honestly. I hope that we do, anyway. After all, these are the competing instincts in my life. Is it more important to maintain amity and friendship in our church family or to speak out against injustice?
I have found that there are times when it is possible to be both peaceful and prophetic. This requires deep wisdom, of course, which I do not often possess. But there are other times when it is not possible to walk the middle way: the injustice is too great to ignore or the need for unity in the body is too fragile.
One of the reasons that I am drawn to our denomination is that it is such a “Big Tent.” In other words, there are some non-negotiable tenets of the faith (primarily rooted in our Trinitarian theology, the grace of God, the process of salvation, and the efficacy of Baptism and Holy Communion), but most everything else falls into the category of: we’ll work it out together. At least, these have been the non-negotiables of our denomination since Mr. Wesley. That being said, our denomination has debated many issues over its 50-year history (Methodism has been around longer, but The United Methodist Church formed in 1968). We stare over the abyss of schism now on the issue of homosexuality. Good Methodists ask if this is an issue that should be the root cause of schism or if it is a non-negotiable tenet of our faith.
Our “Big Tent” means that there are some deeply conservative (politically and theologically) people, and some deeply progressive (politically and theologically) people, and a whole lot of people who find themselves somewhere between the two poles. What a joy! What a burden! I am grateful that Mr. Wesley provided an avenue by which we can be in conversation with one another – Holy Conferencing. This is where Christians come together for the express purpose of hearing from God through conversation with one another about issues, particularly difficult topics. It is also where we seek out people who do not necessarily agree with us to be in prayer and conversation – Holy Conferencing – with us. The intent is not to solve a problem or even to come to an agreement, but to listen intently to one another and to understand that the other is a child of God who is (also) earnestly seeking God’s holy Truth. I believe that Holy Conferencing works. Persons of very different backgrounds and opinions have come to know one another as brothers and sisters rather than adversaries or rivals.
Holy Conferencing cannot be accomplished on the written page. It can only happen face to face, in prayer and with intentionality. It is my hope that you will engage in intentional Holy Conferencing with one another in the coming days and weeks over some of the exceedingly difficult (and thus divisive) subjects of our day: human sexuality (including homosexuality); race and justice, both institutional and individual; capitalism and socioeconomic forces that unite and divide us; other religions (particularly Islam) and how we as Christians are to live in a multicultural and multi-religious world and community; terrorism and safety; dealing with the Other – the refugee, the poor, the oppressed; and others as they arrive; and even the political divide in our country that threatens the fabric of the republic.
The institutions of government and church should remain separate. But it is impossible to separate faith and politics for one so often defines the other, and probably should. Even as I pray for wisdom in providing spiritual guidance and leadership to our church, I also pray for you to hear God’s voice and to share it with one another and with me. And I pray that we might do it in such a way that we hear one another as children of God earnestly seeking His direction. It’s either that or a brawl at the Thanksgiving table when Uncle So-and-So won’t be quiet about whatever it is that we disagree about. Yeah, Holy Conferencing seems like the better way to go.