Life continues in a patchwork fashion across United Methodism…we have a lot of work to do.
That’s not Chinese Food
Bishop Ken Carter of the Florida Annual Conference tells the story of when his family moved to Florida, they saw a Chinese restaurant in their neighborhood. They went and the food was…awful. That’s not Chinese food. The Bishop knows what good or decent Chinese food is–his daughter is a Chinese interpreter–and that’s not it. And now they have a secret wish: they wish it would close. Everyone would be much better off if that restaurant closed, a better one opened up, and then the people would know what Chinese food really is. But in the meantime, there’s a whole block full of people who think there’s a Chinese restaurant in their neighborhood.
I thought about this story a lot in the past week, because there’s whole blocks full of people who think there’s a Methodist church in their neighborhood. They drive by and see that church with a cross and flame and think they represent all Methodists. They might move out of their neighborhoods and to other neighborhoods, and see a Methodist church there, and not give it a shot because they already know what Methodism is all about.
And this past week, there’s been people who have read the decisions coming out of the General Conference, and it makes my heart sad that they might think there’s a Methodist church like that in my neighborhood.
In John 20, as I’ve written before, we have two different experiences of the Resurrection. The first is by Mary Magdalene, who, after recognizing Jesus Resurrected, and goes to tell the Disciples the very first sermon: “I have seen the Lord” The first sermon about Jesus is by a woman who says “I want to tell you about the Resurrection I just saw.”
Like Mary, I want to tell you about the Resurrections I saw the two weeks of General Conference. Some decisions do reflect the abundant life initiated by Christ:
- We will have a new hymnal, the process has begun and it will be a living one that is both paper and digital, able to be updated so we might sing new songs alongside our current ones.
- We will soon state that the church is open to all people regardless of age or gender. It’s odd that our church doesn’t say this explicitly. But soon it will.
- We almost reached our four year goal to raise $75 million to fight malaria, a preventable and eradicable disease. We did it!
- We approved four areas of focus, first articulated in 2008, and adapted a bit, focusing on childhood health, poverty, leadership development, and new faith communities.
And even when the votes did not go the way we hoped, we got great messages and narratives out there that caused every delegate to think a bit deeper about their experience..
But there’s another voice in my heart, and it’s the same voice as in the second part of John 20.
Thomas, one of the disciples, arrives after the Disciples had seen Jesus and confirmed Mary’s story. Thomas was told of the Resurrection, and he doubted, he disagreed, he was Debbie Downer. No amount of testimony or trust would override his belief that Jesus was dead–and he held onto that belief for seven days until Jesus appeared to him.
Some decisions reflect Thomas who wants to sit in the in-between space where he hears the world is different but refuses to believe it:
- We did not divest from fossil fuels despite vigorous debate on the floor and the reality of climate change.
- We defeated a resolution of support for Palestine despite the reality of human rights abuses there.
- We removed ourselves from the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, an organization for reproductive health that we helped begin in the 1970s.
- We turned down or did not consider many proposals brought by United Methodist Women that advocated for women and children–women and children!
Like Thomas, we settled for maintaining church “as is,” doubting the new life already revealed.
However, it is specifically around LGBTQ Inclusion that we see a decision that represents both Thomas (a gloomy long sitting period) and Mary (an unexpected Resurrection).
- Thomas: You may have heard in the news that The UMC did not change their position on whether pastors can officially preside over weddings, regardless of the gender of the participants, nor did it change that we cannot ordain out LGBT persons. Instead, they deferred action on all those topics to a special GC just on human sexuality in 2018…a long time to wait.
- Mary: This is a great disappointment but one that needs to be put in a larger frame. The previous week some awful legislation advanced that would have accelerated the expulsion of Progressives from The UMC. They were waiting in the wings to be voted on and made into law, and they might have passed. This action to defer means those poison pills did not make the 2016 Discipline–to the Church’s collective relief.
This action to defer those means that life continues in a patchwork fashion across United Methodism. Life and ministry continues just as it was 20 days ago, in a mix of affirming and disregarding the gifts of LGBTQ people. Depending on where you are physically located in ministry, this is either good news or bad news.
Bishop Carter laments that a whole neighborhood believes they have a Chinese restaurant by him.
I lament that the whole world believes the Methodist church in my neighborhood looks like the one in the news last week.
We have a lot of work to do.
Seeking the Sunrise
I will have to put up with wherever the church may go for a long time.
I entered the ordination process, I was commissioned, ten years ago this next Sunday. But I also have thirty-six years of ordained ministry ahead of me if I go to the mandatory retirement age. This church is my home. It’s where my older daughter was baptized three years ago and my younger daughter will be baptized this summer.
I’m committed to sitting with this church through to the other side.
John 20 reminds us the Disciples treated Thomas like we are called to treat the Methodist Church. The Disciples sat with Thomas for seven days, waiting for the Resurrection to be made real to him. And if they had to wait forty-eight years, I believe they would have. Because to watch the Resurrection sunrise together? To see that moment of awakening in the other to the truth of God’s love for LGBTQ people?
That’s the resurrection moment to wait for, and that we are actively working for in the Church.
Bearing The Church With You
Until that moment, dear reader, we have a job to do.
If you don’t want the kind of Methodist in the news, or that makes up the majority vote, to be known as the Methodists to your community, then your call is to bear your Methodist identity with you in all you do.
Ensure when people meet you and see you in mission and ministry outside these church walls, that they’ve met a Methodist. Not the bad Chinese food kind of Methodist. Not the kind that may have been in the news this past week. Rather, the kind of Methodist you believe in and your local church believes in, so that all who meet you and travel somewhere else that has a cross and flame sign, they ask “Why aren’t these Methodists like you?“