I think it’s providential that today’s WordPress blogging challenge – write a post in response to the word “hope” – meets my thoughts and fears, prayers and hopes, for the upcoming United Methodist General Conference.
While the sun hangs in the sky and the desert has sand
While the waves crash in the sea and meet the land
While there’s a wind and the stars and the rainbow
Till the mountains crumble into the plain
Oh yes we’ll keep on tryin’ – Queen, “Innuendo”, lyrics by Freddie Mercury & Roger Taylor
Let the lost be found and the dead be raised!
In the here and now, let love invade!
Let the church live loud our God we’ll say
We believe, we believe!
And the gates of hell will not prevail!
For the power of God, has torn the veil!
Now we know Your love will never fail! – The Newsboys, “We Believe”
Yes, it’s that time again. Once every four years, we United Methodists gather from around the world to pray and plan and argue and vote and protest and challenge one another; in other words, we are like any large gathering of people different from one another who are called to make decisions that impact millions of lives. Among the decisions we will be facing is the place of the North American Church within the larger world-wide connection; how better to call to accountability members of the clergy and hierarchy; of course, there’s the quadrennial matter of our Book of Discipline, our Constitution and laws that emerge from each General Conference session.
The thing is, this General Conference will be remembered as the one that either deals with our ongoing divisions over sexual difference and the place of sexual minorities within the ministry and clergy of our church; or it will be remembered as the General Conference where those issues are set to one side yet again, handed to a study committee, or – if four years ago is any guide – not discussed at all, with all mention of the matter quickly silenced, including arresting those who dared continue to speak in the midst of official demands for silence. Please note I am not here saying that a particular outcome will determine how our meeting in Portland, OR will be remembered. All I’m saying is the success or failure of this General Conference will be determined by how faithfully, humbly, prayerfully, and gracefully we approach the questions of the place of sexual minorities within the life, ministry, and clergy of our church.
The past year has been a time filled with frustration as many voices – including my own – rehearsed yet again the same arguments that have been around since the language regarding “homosexuality” – that its “practice” is “incompatible with Christian teaching” – was first adopted in 1972. Some, including me, have wondered whether or not the time of the United Methodist Church, already in peril for any number of reasons, most of which are outside our control, to recognize our race has been run and to pass the baton to others. The acrimony and bile of so many of our discussions seem to have passed the breaking point.
Yet ours is a denomination that believes: We believe in our Trinue God who is known because of the love and grace incarnate in the crucified and risen Son, Jesus of Nazareth. We do not believe in words or formulas or doctrines or hermeneutics or traditions. Ours is a living faith in the Living God who is love and grace. Anything else anyone wishes to say of the God proclaimed and for whom we live as United Methodists is always secondary to that prodigal grace and love for all creation, a grace and love that will not see a bit of it lost to sin and death. In our desire to pursue justice, to abide by covenants and vows, to remain faithful ministers to the world, to uphold the order of our Church, all of us at one time or another has lost sight of the simple reality that our God of love is greater than our own understandings of justice, or our all-too-human understandings of the Divine Word. In defense of particularity we have forgotten the whole, a whole that is love and grace more powerful than our self-righteousness and surety.
This is the reason that I revoke my earlier statements that the UMC should give up the ghost because of our divisions over the matter of human sexuality. I’m not necessarily hopeful that this year will be the year that “my” side is decisive in its “victory”. Where I am hopeful, however, is this time we might actually have a real discussion; we might actually no longer fear our disagreements and divisions, but rather recognize them as the very real expressions of different ways of being faithful; that rather than call “others” to account, we may yet be willing to go humbly before God and confess our own failings and failures, how we have contributed to a spirit of mistrust and resentment that could very well still overwhelm us.
And that’s why I say I’m hopeful. I’m not certain of anything. In 2012, I was shocked that a milquetoast declaration of difference, proposed by two of the most famous United Methodist pastor’s in the country, was steamrolled to defeat. Indeed, a restatement of our basic belief that God’s grace is available to all was affirmed by only a narrow margin precisely because to say so would seem to undermine the declaration elsewhere that some people – “homosexuals” – lived lives incompatible with Christian teaching (these are just two of the reason 2012 was such a disaster; any and all discussion was silenced in favor of a determination to falsely reaffirm and portray a false agreement regarding our Church’s stance regarding sexual minorities in our midst). It may well be that, despite all the arguments and politicking, the preparations for a different discernment process on this and other matters of great import, and despite all the changes in our Church, our nation, and our world over the past four years we will arrive at the end of our Portland meeting no further forward or backward than we are at the beginning.
Hope is not expectation. Hope is just that: hope. Since the last General Conference ended, I know I have felt energized to make this year’s meeting better not so much in outcomes, but rather in our openness to the movement of the Spirit, not to silence voices or punish those who protest restrictions upon freedom of access. I believe in the God who was manifest in Jesus of Nazareth, who died and three days later rose again; for that reason alone, I believe that it is yet possible for the United Methodist Church to rise and be the People Called Methodist into the rest of the 21st century.
And if the language in the Book of Discipline isn’t changed . . . again? Well, those of us who wish to see change always have the choice of surrendering and joining another denomination, or of leading this or that or another faction in splitting away from the United Methodist Church. We also, however, have the choice to stay and just keep fighting. There are no final endings in this life, not really. The pursuit of human freedom and justice never really ends. We must always know that if that is our calling – to work and fight so that all may yet be free and governed by real justice and live in peace – our work may end, but the work never ends. The only thing that strengthens us all in this fight is our faith that love, as the Song of Songs says, is stronger than death. Our hope is that candle we light in the darkness of the bitterness, the mutual denunciations, and all the brokenness that makes traveling in the dark so hazardous.
We can surrender, sure. I think, however, we’re called both to hope and, in the end, keep on fighting because that is all we can do, trusting in God for the end that reflects Divine love and grace. May we all pray that, at the very least, our prayers and hopes are guided by our faith in God, the living God.