Like many United Methodists, we awake to the day following our Special Called General Conference with a host of differing responses. In taking just a few moments to review the national news and my Twitter feed, it is clear that those responses range from pain, anger, joy, fear, and uncertainty. Within each of those there are occasionally calls to action. The actions we consider in our own hearts and minds can easily reflect the emotions, listed above, we all may be feeling.
Less than a year ago, the leadership of my former congregation, the First UMC of San Diego, made some critical decisions on the issue of same-sex marriage akin to the very same issues the General Conference was considering. In retrospect, I am proud of those leaders for being courageous enough to make their stand and lead that church into a prophetic direction. I hope and pray that they can help lead the whole church in the days ahead.
I offer the following reflections, realizing I no longer serve a singular local church. However, I am still called to serve local churches and the body of Christ. It is from that new vantage point that I lift up these reflections.
Hold the Pain.
This word, “hold”, is a new one to me. I have to thank the Rev. Matt Smith who is the Co-Pastor of The Table at Central UMC here in Sacramento for sharing its meaning with me. This long duel in the UMC regarding human sexuality has inflicted a deep, deep level of pain across the life of the church. We cannot even begin to estimate the pain in those who are NOT a part of our church that have witnessed these things.
When in pain, our natural reflex is to escape it quickly. Our impulsive calls to action fueled by fear and anger often expose this reflex to escape. Holding the pain means diving into the depths of our own pain about the state of our denomination. Holding the pain also means allowing space for those around us. We are called to hold their pain with them. For many it is a pain they have long been carrying.
As a straight-white-male with a life of opportunity afforded by my cultural privilege, I cannot begin to estimate the pain that others are feeling. While I cannot know it fully, we each can be present to those in that struggle today. Christ calls us to come along side not just the LGBTQIA+ community, but all who have experienced this struggle. Instead seeing the pain as something to solve, let’s just hold it for a moment. Explore its depths and feel its contours. Allow the suffering Christ to guide us in it. Just hold it. As the prophets of old, we must simply weep, wail, and lament. Not because we agree or disagree. Rather, because there is woundedness.
No matter where we each stand on the issue of human sexuality, we have to be honest about who we are and who we are called to be. Both progressives, centrists, and traditionalists have become increasingly honest. That honesty has led us to place where the rawness of who we are is exposed. That became apparent on the floor of the General Conference. As we honestly looked at each other, our latent prejudices and animosity became clearer. This General Conference was a watershed moment of honesty and thus, intimacy. We see even more clearly how broken we are. No need for name calling or condemnation. What we see is the truth of each other and ourselves.
That honesty has to advance. Dr. Stephen Carter in his book Integrity defines the word integrity as having three clear components. First, we must discern what is the right choice in our situation. Second, we must then act in a manner consistent with that choice. Third, we must defend that action when called to do so. That process has implications for us all. We must be prayerful, deliberative, and connectional in discerning that choice for our future. Honesty requires us to search the heart and soul for the leadership of God’s Spirit. Once that becomes clear to us through our personal and social holiness, then we act. Not before.
Allow Something to Unfold.
The decisions of the General Conference are going to be thoroughly reviewed by the Judicial Council. Constitutional amendments need to be processed by the Annual Conferences. General Conference meets again next year. Both our pain and our honesty will inform all of those. For now, we continue moving as we have been. The Western Jurisdiction has made clear that we will continue being ONE church. Holy Conferencing needs to ensue with progressives, centrists, and even traditionalists to discern how God is moving and calling us.
Our faithful response to this is to trust that God is moving in our pain and in our honesty. It is in this authentic place that we actually meet the risen Lord Jesus. Nowhere else. I am not advocating a process of long-enduring patience. Certainly, we have borne that journey for the last 40 years! Rather, I offer that in our pain and honesty as a United Methodist Church, we are poised to see something unfold. Could that be a new denomination? Could that be a reconciliation? Could that be something we cannot even describe yet?
Being faithful is hard. It requires the rejection of certainty. It hails us to embrace the mystery. No matter what happens, let us be sure that along the journey we trusted God’s Spirit. In the years to come, we have to look back and have an assurance that we held our pain, were honest, and that we allowed something to unfold. Jesus was leading the church before General Conference. That has not changed. The question is not Jesus’ leadership but, rather, our following of it.