You’ve likely heard of the playground experiment. A team put a fence up around a playground. Children ran all over the playground and felt free to explore. When the fence was removed, researchers noticed children gathered around their teacher and were reluctant to explore.
Rules (and fences) can be helpful. They make us feel safe. They give us boundaries. Someone determined the rule was helpful and needed. This works. Until it doesn’t. We grow, change, ask new questions and the rules that previously gave us freedom now keep us trapped.
We’re ready for wisdom.
My dad recently retired as a United Methodist pastor and I appreciated his comment that at first it felt like his life was getting smaller. Less responsibility, fewer keys, less contact with colleagues and friends from church. But then his brother texted him two words: expansive sabbath. At the very moment that life feels like it is getting smaller, it, in fact, is opening up in a spacious wide-open way.
Eugene Petersen puts it like this in 2 Corinthians 6:11-13 in The Message: “I can’t tell you how much I long for you to enter this wide-open, spacious life…The smallness you feel comes from within you. Your lives aren’t small, but you’re living in a small way…Live openly and expansively!”
It’s worth asking in stuck, tight, anxious, scarcity moments: What rules am I living by that are slowly taking my life? Am I open to some new wisdom? To receive it, I have to first believe I don’t actually know everything. And isn’t it surprising how often we find ourselves thinking we do?
McLaren puts it this way: “When we’re ready, the Spirit leads us to graduate from rule-oriented primary school to secondary school with its new emphasis: wisdom.” Wisdom is more than rule-following. It’s Spirit-leading.
To graduate from rules to wisdom, we’re invited to not simply follow a different plan. We’re invited to move in an entirely different way. We need this as individuals. We need it especially as faith communities.
A spacious community living from wisdom instead of rules asks different questions. They address their fear and dig underneath it. They resist scarcity. They practice trusting abundance.
Are there rules your community follows that don’t feel life-giving anymore? It’s helpful to name them aloud in safe group conversation spaces. You can help your faith community dig into good conversations and do courageous work to discern and name where God may be inviting you next.
Spacious communities trust God’s wisdom is gloriously sufficient to hold us as old rules fall away. Spacious communities know grace and love will birth new ways of being beloved community together. Spacious communities do the work to grieve what is shifting. It is a kind of death. And they prepare for the resurrection!
I offer this reflection as a prayer for your local church family:
A Spacious Community
There’s room to breathe In a spacious community
There’s space to bring Who you are
There’s margin to explore A new perspective
There’s questions to ask That could change everything
A spacious community Doesn’t feel narrow Exclusive Restrictive Confining or Suffocating
A spacious community Breathes freedom into the Tight Anxious Confusing Painful Knots of our souls
In spacious community There is Life Movement Gift Joy Sorrow Doubt Peace Love
Because a spacious community Is fully alive Showing up with courage Paying attention to pain Cooperating with Love Releasing the assumed outcome So that Love gets a wide-open playground To skip, climb, slide and giggle Its way through us all
Rev. Jenny Smith serves as pastor to Marysville United Methodist Church in the Pacific Northwest Conference. You can find more of her writing on her blog.
Lord, Let me never be so conceited to believe that you love me More than the person standing next to me Or the person living a continent away from me. Keep me humble So that I may know That every person born is your favorite, Beautifully and uniquely created by your loving hands. Amen
McLaren writes: “Our neighbor is anyone and everyone—like us or different from us, friend or stranger—even enemy.” And, “We must find a new approach, make a new road, pioneer a new way of living as neighbors in one human community, as brothers and sisters in one family of creation.” McLaren asks us to “see our differences as gifts, not threats, to one another.”
In every family, there are a variety of personalities, a variety of gifts, and a plethora of opinions. This is true in every church family and every domestic family unit. My sister was a cheeky tom-boy and I was a practical, perfectionist. And we often clashed.
One evening we were squabbling over something (so long ago that neither of us remember the ‘what’ or ‘why’). Penny looked at me and burst out with intense attitude, “Well, I am Dad’s favorite.” Dad’s frame filled the doorway as he came to investigate what all the fuss was about. I look up asking, “Dad, just who is your favorite?” (Sounds a little bit like two disciples, you know the one that Jesus loved and that other one).
Shaking his head with a grin appearing across his face, Dad calmly replied, “You’re my favorite Linda.” Before I can snap back at my sister, he interjects, “You’re my favorite Penny and your sister is my favorite Carla.” Dad went on to explain that each of his daughters were his favorites for different reasons.
Dad told us what kept us high on his favorite list was when we showed each other kindness, consideration of the others feelings, thoughtfulness and respect for each other. He shared that when we generously shared what we had with others, were honest and truthful, and didn’t squabble–we were his favorites.
Reflecting on Christ’s commandment to “Love thy neighbor”, I can say that I am God’s favorite me just as you are God’s favorite you. We are different yet God favors each of us as His own with immeasurable, equal love. We are called to show kindness and consideration placing others needs above our own wants. We are called to love our neighbor, respecting our differences in what we believe. We are commanded to share our resources, gifts, and talents with one another. We are to love those that are different. Loving our neighbor is giving all that we have to meet another one‘s physical, mental and spiritual needs. Loving one another is sacrificial.
Our neighbors are everyone! Believers, non-believers, churched or unchurched, male or female, even those of different faith are our neighbors. In Christ’s church, “we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” (Romans 12:5 NRSV) We belong to each other. We are all part of the one body and interdependent upon each other making us responsible for each other in God’s Holy Name.
As McLaren writes love is “practical, specific, concrete, down- to- earth action.” He concludes, “In the movement of the Spirit, to love is to live.”
God may be speaking to me in a way that conflicts with what He is speaking to you. I may be right. I may be wrong. You may be right. You may be wrong. I am called to love. Loving you as my neighbor requires me to treat you with grace and dignity; honoring you as God’s favorite you!
As I sign my cards to my dad,
Your favorite Linda
Linda Haynes is a child of God, mother of four blessings, grandmother of three blessings and a certified lay servant and member of Christ First UMC in Wasilla, Alaska. She serves the Alaska United Methodist Conference as a volunteer in the roles of Conference Statistician and Lay Servant Trainer. Linda was a Reserve Delegate to the 2016 and 2019 General Conferences.
Brian McLaren’s chapter this week (42 – Spirit of Love: Loving God) starts with a reminder of how church people can often be a barrier to our neighbors who might need God’s love the most.
McLaren writes: “Hot-headed religious extremists, lukewarm religious bureaucrats, and cold-hearted religious critics alike have turned the word God into a name for something ugly, small, boring, elitist, wacky, corrupt, or violent—the very opposite of what it should mean.”
McLaren’s words reminded me of a book I read a few years ago called UnChristian by David Kinnamon which included a list of the various negative impressions that younger people had of Christianity. While the book had its flaws, its naming of these negative impressions—hypocritical, too focused on conversions, homophobic, sheltered, too political, judgmental—resonated for many.
At this moment in the life of The United Methodist Church, we are not making great strides in convincing young people that these impressions are all that wrong. As a leader or member of a local church, you may be having a better go of it—I hope that is the case—but I have little doubt that these barriers to God’s love remain in far too many places.
As I was reflecting on this chapter, I was drawn to think that we sometimes neglect to consider our personal responsibility to share God’s love especially because of our denominational conflict. It’s easy to act as if this task is external to us; to imagine that if we just resolved what should or should not be in the Book of Discipline, everything else would sort itself out.
Such a perspective fails to give agency where it is due. We, you and me, are called to take the love of Christ out into the world even if there is no church to support (or hinder) those efforts. Indeed, we are often best positioned for that task.
Every day, we interact with, bump into, and otherwise impact dozens, if not hundreds, of other people. Some of these interactions are intentional, significant, and lengthy. Others are less significant, at least to us. Many of these people have no regular interaction with a functional (or dysfunctional) church.
Each of these interactions is important. Each is an opportunity to share God’s love.
Now I’m not suggesting that we turn these interactions into some grand evangelistic moment. Quite the contrary, doing so might sound exactly the wrong message in many situations (see “too focused on conversions” from Kinnamon’s list). But each interaction is an opportunity to pay forward the love, generosity, and grace we have received, even before we knew we needed them, and certainly before we earned them.
Imagine with me for a moment. That person bagging your groceries may have just lost a someone cherished by them; or maybe they are struggling with addiction. The smile, thank you, and acknowledgment of their presence might be just the thing that helps them to get through that day.
That jerk that just cut me off in traffic? That same person might be a single parent heading to their second job unsure how they are going to pay all of their bills this month. Did my obscene gesture express God’s love adequately?
I don’t mean to suggest that the big things don’t matter; they do. Just don’t wait for your denomination, or local church, to perfect its witness before you tend to your own. And thank God that you don’t need to form a committee, or a majority, before you can respond to God’s calling to share your belovedness with the world!
Patrick Scriven is a husband who married well, a father of three amazing girls, and a seminary educated layperson working professionally in the church. Scriven serves the Pacific Northwest Conference as Director of Communications and Young People’s Ministries.
“For you have been called to live in freedom, my [siblings]. But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love. For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you are always biting and devouring one another, watch out! Beware of destroying one another. So I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives.” – Galatians 5:13-16 (NLT)
For almost 6 months, we have been walking/making a road together. What happens when the road feels like it’s now under water?
This image speaks to me of the road we think we walk on—how we might be so sure of our footing one day—with one frame of mind and one convicted stance, like singular rocks jutting from the earth—only to lose sight of and contact with the path when the floods of change swamp our shores.
God’s eternal presence sings in the streams of water and wind in all creation. The words from the song “God Help Me” by Plumb have been a soundtrack for my heart these days:
“Help me to move Help me to see Help me to do whatever you would ask of me Help me to go God help me to stay … God help me”
The lyrics “Help me to go/Help me to stay” seem to represent the push and pull of the current struggle we as United Methodists face as a denomination. It’s also representative of the magnetic attraction and repulsion of how we take sides within our own souls.
Our denomination has proved the world right. We are divided. We are hypocritical. We do not show love in the way that Jesus calls us to. Perhaps it would help to remember that even the phrase “maybe they’re just not there yet” is a judgment.
So it’s up to us to change—starting with ourselves. One heart at a time, each of us can make the choice to ask the Holy Spirit to guide us, move us, help us to see. (Notice that sometimes the guide and the movement come before seeing and knowing where we are going.)
It’s up to us to let the Holy Spirit breathe peace into our souls and let Spirit lead the way. Maybe then we can shine a different light into the world, God’s light.
What would happen if we unfurled our sails to catch Holy Spirit wind? If the tides of opportunity start rolling in, how could we move with each other in love?
Let us hear Jesus’ words through the paraphrase of The Message: “ Let me give you a new command: Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.” – John 13:34-35
Let us recall Paul’s words to the Romans, “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.” – Romans 13:8, NIV
Here is the part of Plumb’s song that feels like the prayer my heart needs to hear right now:
“So take all my resistance Oh God I need Your grace One step and then the other—show me the way”
May we continue to pray for God to help us make Jesus’ road by walking. One step and then another. Spirit show us the way.
Teri Watanabe is a Certified Lay Minister serving the United Methodist Churches of Monroe and Valley in Oregon.
Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth. (God) doesn’t grow tired or weary. (God’s) understanding is beyond human reach, giving power to the tired and reviving the exhausted.
… those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength; they will fly up on wings like eagles; they will run and not be tired; they will walk and not be weary.
Isaiah 40:28-31 CEB
What does it look like to rise up whatever the hardship? Who embodies strength in the midst of adversity?
UTOPIA Seattle (United Territories of Pacific Islanders Alliance)is a LGBTQ, people of color-led, grassroots organization born out of the struggles, challenges, strength, and resilience of the Queer and Trans Pacific Islander (QTPI – “Q-T-pie”) community in South King County (Washington State). Their mission is to provide sacred spaces to strengthen the minds and bodies of QTPIs through community organizing, community care, civic engagement and cultural stewardship. UTOPIA was founded and is led by women of color, identifying as transgender and/or fa’afafine. Fa’afafine is a third cultural gender identity native to Samoa. This gender identity extends beyond a binary notion of gender (e.g., man or woman), similar to other cultures within and beyond the Pacific Islands (In Hawaiian, Mahu; in some indigenous cultures, two spirit; and in India, hijira). I suggest this short clip “The Meaning of Mahu” from the PBS Independent Lens film, “A Place in the Middle” to better understand this third gender.
I recently went to UTOPIA’s annual fundraising luau. Before this event, I knew nothing of the organization or the fa’afafine community. It was an incredible evening—full of food, music, dance, and speakers. We heard personal stories of overcoming all sorts of difficulty—domestic violence, transphobia, physical violence, and isolation—as well as personal stories of community, family and faith support. The entire evening was an expression of power, beauty, love, culture, community, and resiliency—a true “rising up.” The event inspired and strengthened me to continue the important work of resisting homophobia, transphobia, and racism in the church and to seek radical solidarity with others in the creation of God’s beloved community.
In this week’s reading, Whatever The Hardship, Keep Rising Up!, McClaren suggests that throughout Christian history, moments of hardship have always offered the movement an opportunity. An opportunity to practice interdependence, grow in our trust of God, and of course, love more fully and more deeply. He writes, “If we don’t give up at that breaking point when we feel we’ve reached the end of our own resources, we find a new aliveness, the life of the risen Christ rising within us.” This echoes a sentiment delivered by the prophet Isaiah, “(God) doesn’t grow tired or weary. (God’s) understanding is beyond human reach, giving power to the tired and reviving the exhausted…those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.”
As we face the different challenges in our life—whether grief, isolation, fear of the unknown, coming out, marginalization or oppression—we can continually turn to our God, the Wellspring of hope, strength, and resilience. We can also turn to community for support and celebration. We would do well to remember this as we continue to discern what’s next for us as the Greater Northwest Area. It is time to call upon all the resources of our faith—scripture, song, prayer, community—to guide us and strengthen us as we continue to face an unknown future in this CrossOver year.
What stories of resilience do you turn to for inspiration and strengthen? What ritual, scripture, song, poem, or picture gives you hope in the midst of difficult times?
Rev. Kathleen Weber serves as Superintendent for the Crest to Coast Missional District in the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
I just returned from two gatherings that I believe will shape the future of Methodism for years to come. Taken together, they could mark a turn toward LGBTQ+ persons being fully recognized, included and honored in Methodism in the future, whatever form it takes. More than 900 people participated in one or both of the two events, including leaders from the Greater Northwest.
As you know, the actions of General Conference 2019 stirred up deep distress within The United Methodist Church. Many are asking: how do we live in a church that has adopted values and rules that we believe are not Christian? Do we stay and try to change the Church? Or is Jesus, who makes all things new, leading us to create a new expression of Methodism that is more faithful to the gospel? It feels like we are in a great season of sorting out how much diversity can remain united, and what are the limits beyond which some may have to leave.
The first gathering, Our Way FORWARD brought together justice-seeking communities to hear one another, recognize their shared oppression, and speak their call and commitment to a new Methodist movement that will act for justice inside the Church and in the world. As intended, people of color and LGBTQ+ United Methodists organized and led the event, with a deep commitment to creating a Church in “radical solidarity” with oppressed people.
Around 350 persons attended this event, with 19 of our fellow United Methodists present from the Greater Northwest Area. I was the only bishop present. Here’s what I experienced.
This gathering was church. It was church in the way it intentionally included many voices in the planning and leadership, and in the way it made space for people to be present in the fullness of their beings. It was church in the way the host congregation prepared, welcomed, fed, honored and protected participants. It was church in the depth, passion and beauty of worship. It was church in the prophetic proclamation of the liberating love of Jesus Christ, in the midst of misrepresentation, rejection and agony. It was church through shared sorrow and grief, the bold claim of baptism, the celebration of the goodness and fragility of God’s creation and gathering at the table of grace.
Many wore T-shirts bearing the baptismal promise of all United Methodists everywhere to: resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.
In contrast to the fervent voices of some presenters, around tables I heard people saying:
I want to be in the Church my parents attend in their conservative town. I don’t agree with them, but I want to be in the same Church.
Even if I left the UMC, I would not be free of it. It is the community of my people. It made me who I am.
I want gay babies born today to have a church that embraces and nurtures them. If I leave, they are still at risk.
Black Methodists stayed in the Church through segregation, even when they were treated as second-class citizens. There can be strength in resistance.
As I left the gathering, I was deeply grateful for the honesty, urgency, and generosity of the community. And I felt confident that the leaders at this gathering and across our Church are ready and able to lead the Church into the future.
The second gathering, UMC NEXT gathered “centrists,” who were outraged at the actions of General Conference, together with progressives longing for real change. This broad coalition of United Methodists denounced the Traditional Plan and vowed to work toward a Church that stands and strives for justice and full inclusion.
But there was concern held by some leading up to this gathering.
I had my own questions about how participants were selected, and whether it would be a truly participatory process.
Nearly 30 people came from the Greater Northwest. Some are respected leaders. Others are newer and not as widely known. Some attended both events to ensure that UMC NEXT would benefit from the conversations and perspectives from FORWARD.
Together, participants helped craft a vision for a new, hopeful, inclusive, just Methodist movement based on four core commitments:
To be passionate followers of Jesus Christ, committed to a Wesleyan vision of Christianity that is anchored in scripture and informed by tradition, reason and experience as we live a life of personal piety and social holiness.
To resist evil, injustice and oppression in all forms and toward all people, and to build a church which affirms the full participation of all ages, nations, races, classes, cultures, gender identities, sexual orientations and abilities.
To reject the Traditional Plan approved at General Conference 2019 as inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ and resist its implementation.
To work to eliminate discriminatory language and the restrictions and penalties in the Book of Discipline regarding LGBTQ individuals. We affirm the sacred worth of LGBTQ persons, celebrate their gifts, and commit to being in ministry together.
These commitments are consistent with statements and actions taken by our Greater Northwest annual conferences for many years. I embrace these commitments and find them helpful as I lead United Methodists in the Northwest. I believe that inclusive community is the Jesus way and that it is the future of our Church.
At the same time, I intend to continue to honor all lay and clergy members and churches in the area I serve, whether they support or reject the actions of the recent General Conference. Over 23 years in Conference leadership, I have never discriminated against clergy or laity, based upon their theology. To the best of their ability, my cabinets have placed clergy in settings where their gifts and graces, as well as their theological perspectives, serve the needs of the community and congregation. I pledge to continue to lead in this way. I will also continue to try to keep you informed of possibilities and plans as they develop.
How will these gatherings affect you? Us? Participants from the Greater Northwest met yesterday before leaving Kansas City, to begin to plan together. There are no concrete plans at this time but these gatherings, and the coalitions that are being built, will help us in shaping what comes next. Before and during annual conferences we are considering conducting surveys or polls to get a “sense” of how United Methodists in Alaska, Oregon-Idaho and Pacific Northwest view the future of Methodism. Policies to guide processes of disaffiliation are being developed for churches that feel they must leave the denomination. In the next few weeks, the Alaska, Oregon-Idaho and Pacific Northwest Annual Conference sessions will give us a chance to learn more, and to think and pray together about our future in the Northwest.
In this CrossOver year, we are finding our way, and making the road, by walking. Almighty God continues to find the goodness in each created being. Companion, Christ, walks with us, as guide and savior. The Holy Spirit continues to breathe life into each one of us moment by moment, with grace in every breath.
I’m grateful for each of you who has participated in Table Talks, held information sessions in your church, sought out and read information about all the many conversations that are unfolding across the church. I hope you are talking with people in your families, your home church, in nearby churches, and outside the church, about the critical challenge we face. I hope you are talking to people whose life experience is different from yours. Where two or three are gathered, God is present.
“I pray that… Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
Christian stewardship is a big deal. It is not just about money. It’s not just about being in service to others. It can be, as we respond to Christ’s call to authentically care for others, a matter of life and death.
When we embrace a robust understanding of Christian stewardship, we have to be willing not only to help those in need but to recognize and respond to their emergencies as if it were our own. Perhaps that is the intersection of empathy and action. The real test comes when we are asked to bend or break the rules as we seek to protect those who look to us for deliverance.
In conversations over coffee and donuts at our local airport, I have often had friends offer their opinions about immigrants crossing the southern border. “They are breaking the law” they relay adamantly, as if to suggest that by crossing into the US without permission all immigrants fall into the same category as drug dealers and human traffickers.
But what about a situation when we cannot both do the right thing and follow the rules? Sometimes we must break the rules, and even the law, to do what is necessary and appropriate.
As a private pilot, I am constantly aware of what it means to be “Pilot in Command.” In that role, I assume stewardship for the safety and well-being of those in the aircraft with me. If something occurs in the course of a flight, it is my responsibility to do whatever is necessary to ensure the safety of those on board—even if that means breaking the rules.
A pilot, facing a critical situation in flight, is expected to “declare an emergency” and then do whatever it takes to get the people under his or her care safely on the ground, even if that means landing an airliner in the Hudson River. It is not that the rules and laws don’t matter, but that there are expected exceptions that one in charge of the safety of others must do.
Isn’t that exactly what those seeking asylum for their children by crossing the southern border are doing? They are “declaring an emergency” by fleeing a dangerous and even deadly threat to their lives and the lives of their children. They are getting them to safety, then standing responsibly before the authorities to answer for their actions. Yet we have consistently denied these courageous people the same latitude which is written into the laws of our land concerning basic safety for those at risk, be it in the air or on the ground.
The real emergency at our southern border is a case by case response to human safety. Each family that has fled violence and hunger is facing the hard choices of seeking safety, not just opportunity. If we who are sitting in judgment of others would accept this perspective, we might discover a new appreciation for the courage and fortitude of the immigrants coming to us. Liberated from our judgment, we could instead engage our creativity, compassion, and resources to welcome them as the heroes they are.
Perhaps it is time for us to engage our sedate value of Christian stewardship in a radical and pro-active way, eagerly offering care for those who look to us for help. The emergency of our siblings is our emergency too. And in this, we should do first what brings people to safety, even if that may necessitate bending or breaking the rules. To my mind, this does not compromise or invalidate the rules and laws by which we live, but rather puts a human face on them.
Rev. Jim Frisbie is a retired elder in the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference.
“We dare to believe that through tiny little seeds like us, through the yeast of our little ecclesia, through the spreading branches of this expanding movement, the world is beginning to change.”
Brian McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking(Chapter 37)
Recently, I was at a national church gathering where several people said, “If we had been focused on our church’s mission in St. Louis, what happened at General Conference wouldn’t have happened.” When I heard these statements, it made me wonder if there really isn’t a problem with our church’s mission statement.
Perhaps we need to stop and examine ourselves for a moment. Maybe we can’t “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” until we first take time to act like disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Perhaps that’s the real issue. So, maybe we need to change one word in the United Methodist Church mission statement. What if we changed the word “make” to “be,” since the mission of the Church really starts with us. Or, more precisely, it starts with God working in and through us. Discipleship has to do with what we do . . . how we see . . . how we act . . . what we worship . . . and how we treat each other and those around us.
Until we manage to get this right, there’s really no need in trying to convince others about what we think it means to follow Jesus, because those around us will look at the evidence found within our own lives to determine what it means to be a Jesus follower. It’s like the famous quote, often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words.”
The truth is, people are watching; what we do and how we act makes a difference. That was clear from all the media coverage that occurred following our church’s St. Louis gathering. And what people saw there was what they think United Methodists believe it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Personally, I think we missed a great opportunity to demonstrate to the world what following Jesus is all about, and we won’t get that same opportunity again.
What should people have been looking for? Paul helps us with this in his letter to the followers in Galatia, when he lists a series of behaviors that he calls “fruit of the Spirit.” Paul’s list includes love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I’m not sure those would be the first words that people would use when describing what they witnessed in St. Louis. And that’s a problem.
It’s hard to make disciples of others when we struggle with the basic principles Jesus taught so much ourselves. Jesus calls us to live in the world in a totally new way that challenges the assumptions of power, privilege, and position. Jesus calls us to see the world differently and treat others in a more loving manner.
As we see in Chapter 37 of McLaren’s book, living in ways that point toward justice, peace, and joy are contagious and spread rapidly, changing life-after-life in the process. And this is how disciple-making occurs. In fact, throughout McLaren’s book, we are reminded of this again and again. And we see this phenomenon taking place in people’s lives—through Paul, Timothy, Luke, Silas, Priscilla, Aquila, Lydia—and on and on.
Brian McLaren, in reflecting on the scripture passages referenced in Chapter 37, says, “We are partners in an earthquake of liberation!” This is an amazing undertaking, and it all starts with God working through us. When we are in sync with God’s Spirit in this way, it is something that is hard to ignore.
Transform the world? Sure, but this begins with our own transformation first. And the truth is that we’ll have other opportunities to make a difference in the world. In fact, the next opportunity may just happen in our very next personal encounter! That’s how it has taken place from the beginning of the Christian movement—and because of this, the world continues to be transformed!
Rev. Lowell Greathouse serves as Mission and Ministry Coordinator for the Oregon-Idaho Conference of The United Methodist Church.
This week the Council of Bishops met and issued a public statement that aspired to be pastoral and prophetic. Thank you for your prayers as we met. Here are some of the reasons I am hopeful after the meeting.
bishops are keenly aware that United Methodism is in crisis. The
backlash in Europe, parts of the United States and other places around the
world to the recent General Conference, makes a unified future for the UMC appear
impossible. Some people hold out hope for a change at the 2020 General
Conference. Others anticipate schism. No-one seems to believe that United
Methodists around the world will simply implement policies that exclude and
punish LGBTQ+ people.
The bishops kept the main thing the main thing. Placing the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, at its center, we devoted 11 hours over 4 days focused on the deep fractures in our Church. We felt deeply the despair of LGBTQ+ persons, their families, and of a new generation of leaders in the United States. We also awoke to the increased risk to poor and vulnerable people caused by funds being withheld or re-directed from apportionments, The Advance, UMCOR, Africa University and other United Methodist causes.
bishops recognize that this crisis offers a rare opportunity. United
Methodism is overdue for a spiritual and practical revival to address systemic
racism, sexism, colonialism, heteronormativity, irrelevance to young people,
and a governance system that is not designed or capable of addressing our
global complexity. How can the Church use this crisis to help God give rise to
a new movement of Methodism? Don’t waste a good crisis!
The bishops see that division keeps
us distracted from mission. We’ve
had split decisions on sexuality for 45 years as a denomination. In February we
took our best shot at adopting legislation that could hold us together and
failed. Our established legislative and judicial processes are not able to heal
the breach. United Methodist spiritual practices and resources are weak. We
find ourselves adrift in turbulent waters.
The bishops began to tell the truth:
maybe not the
whole truth, but a lot of new truth. We spoke more frankly about our ministry
contexts and the conflicting demands within our areas. We challenged each other
honestly about ways our leadership may contribute to division and distrust. Some
challenged participation by bishops in caucuses and reform groups on both sides
of the divide. Some reported conservatives being blamed for the actions of the
General Conference. I recalled that the Western Jurisdiction has been fully
inclusive since before the Church prohibited ordination of LGBTQ+ people and
blessing of their relationships.
The bishops acknowledged that worldly powers and principalities are at work, intending to divide the Church and silence its prophetic voice.
In some places, bishops report that disruption in their areas was amplified by outside groups spreading accusations of influence peddling, delegate voter fraud and defamatory rumors about individuals and regions of the Church. We asked ourselves, are we just too nice to investigate and expose these actions? Should bishops identify ourselves with these groups? Should there be a standard of disclosure and transparency for any group that wants to be considered a trustworthy partner? You may have seen the photo of bishops meeting with the Reform and Renewal Coalition comprised of Good News, the Confessing Movement, the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) and The Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA), during the Council meeting. Bishops who were not there asked the other, “Why did you go to the meeting?” Bishops who attended raised strong objections to unethical and dishonest tactics of some affiliated with the coalition.
African American bishops testified to their survival in an unjust system. In a wrenching witness, African American bishops described decades of racial segregation within the Church in the United States and the faithfulness of African Americans who stayed and supported the Church, despite being marginalized. The church has never healed those wounds, and black voices are still not heard in the Church today. Some resent the outcry in support of LGBTQ+ people, when there has never been acknowledgement and advocacy for full racial inclusion. Through their pain, these colleagues offered another oppressed group encouragement to survive in structures that deny your humanity. I heard them saying – don’t leave. You can stay, despite the pain inflicted on you, because God loves you and makes you strong. The Church needs you to be whole.
The bishops began to see that human sexuality cannot be considered as an either/or proposition to be settled by an up or down vote. If there is one new thing I am learning from the LGBTQ+ community, it is that binary options are not adequate. Either/or choices don’t take account of how fearfully and wonderfully God has made us. Making sense of LGBTQ+ requires and deserves deep conversation, biblical scholarship, ethical consideration and prayer-filled spiritual maturity. It requires the wisdom of scripture, tradition, reason and experience. People are not simply male or female, slave or free, Jew or Gentile, biblical literalists or biblical critical thinkers, rule-follower or people-lover. Binary choices cannot reveal the whole truth, because you have to ignore part of the truth to answer a complex question with a simple answer.
In the midst of the messiness of the struggle I find hopeful
signs that the Church is alive, and at work, humble, and learning. The Council
of Bishops did not propose a top-down 5-year plan. It’s not time to have a plan
yet. Most of us are so rooted within our side of the divided question, we don’t
know how complicated the questions are for someone stuck on the other side. We
have to keep listening, and searching for the whole truth that has room for
each of our particular truths.
Later this month I’ll travel to Minneapolis to participate
in the UM Forward Conference, inviting voices of Young, Queer and people of
Color to speak at the center of the conversation. From there I will travel to
Church of the Resurrection near Kansas City, where some 600 people will gather
at the invitation of Pastor Adam Hamilton, to pray and think together about the
future of the Church. I hope there will be lots of listening and truth-sharing in
both groups. I’ll check in with you after I return, as we prepare for Annual
In the meantime, by every prayer, every step, every sermon, every Bible study, every act of generosity, we are crossing over, and making the road by walking.
When I attended Candler School of Theology, I had the chance to go to Cuba with the World Methodist Evangelism Institute on a religious visa. I could talk for days about all of my experiences. It was amazing. As a lifelong United Methodist, it was my first personal experience with the charismatic church, and I witnessed the Holy Spirit moving in new and inspiring ways. It was intense, and it was life changing.
Two of the other participants, Kathy and Sharletta, were also from my seminary and when we returned to Atlanta, we came home with the recognition that we were responsible for our own faith formation. It may seem obvious, but at a theology school, we kind of thought we would be handed the best practices. In Cuba, we humbly realized that wasn’t the case. No one was going to “do” our faith for us. We weren’t going to mature as disciples by osmosis. We had to choose to pray, to worship, to engage in fellowship, to serve others, and to study for ourselves.
So, we decided to meet weekly to sing, share with one another, and pray. We met faithfully each week in the same space. Our time together wasn’t formal, but the rituals formed organically among us. We would start by checking in, talking about life, family, and our own needs. It was like “joys and concerns” but with deep focused attention on each of us. We could choose to share as we needed and share again if something else came up. We took turns praying however we felt led—for each other, and sometimes for our own requests. Sharletta had a beautiful voice and easily drifted from spoken words to singing, and we would join her. Her readiness to sing drew out our own inclination to sing and so it came to be that any of us might lead with a prayer or song at any point in our time together.
We also learned to be comfortable in the silences. We didn’t rush to talk or pray the next prayer. We intentionally slowed down, leaving space for each other and created space for the Holy Spirit. All of that happened in our first year of seminary. Our time together was so valuable we continued it until the end of our third year when we graduated. Over the years, we invited other friends to join us. Some came once or twice, others joined for a season, and others joined and never left.
All of that was more than 13 years ago and it still stands as one of the most profound experiences of church in my life.
As I reflect on this week’s scriptures and Brian McLaren’s chapter on worship and ecclesia (We Make the Road by Walking, Chapter 36 • The Uprising of Worship), I think of the riches of relationships in the church. We have so much to offer one another, so much to gain from investing in learning to do faith together. A quick read of the scriptures makes it sound easy. The reality is, like much in our faith, it is simple (pray, break bread, praise God, care for one another) but not easy. It takes commitment, dedication and intentionality.
Being the church together isn’t easy, but it is worth it. And when it gets really hard, it’s good to go back to what’s simple: pray, break bread, praise God, and care for one another.