Maybe you’ve heard the story of the guy who fell overboard into the water. Another guy tried to rescue him, only to grab different arms, legs, whatever and finding each time that a prosthetic appendage came loose. The man in the water kept yelling, “Save me!” In frustration, the would-be rescuer said, “I would, if you would only stick together!” I wonder if that’s an analogy for the United Methodist Church and what God is trying to say to us. It is one of the big questions as we go into General Conference 2016. Will we split? Will we opt for a solution that gives local options on hot-button issues, or will we stick together?
Our connectional identity as a denomination promotes unity over schism. In my mind, that’s the identity of the whole church: one Lord, one faith, one baptism (Ephesians 4:5). Bishop and friend, Tom Bickerton, recently wrote a book that he has shared with General Conference delegates and the whole church, What Are We Fighting For? Its subtitle says a lot: “Coming Together Around What Matters Most.” He uses stories and anecdotes in a winsome way that promotes a win-win outcome for the UMC.
Tom and I might arrive at different positions. I honestly don’t know. One thing I do know is that his question is a good one: what are we fighting for? To some his question is about much more than a peripheral issue. It connects to bedrock non-negotiable tenets of the faith. To others, human sexuality debates are about the nature of God and God’s love for all humankind, and that’s also non-negotiable. These positions beg the question: Can we stick together?
Many people have already given up hope for a peaceful resolution for our church. They’re coming to Portland “loaded for bear.” Many want to collaborate and find ways to move forward as a church. Others are holding fast to their positions because they feel certain that some issues are already decided in God’s mind and theirs, and don’t even want to be civil toward those who differ. Many want to disrupt and hold the conference hostage. I think most of us want the Holy Spirit to envelope the convention center and light the fire of revival that will move us past this extremely personal and heart-wrenching issue.
I am reminded of the late Dr. Scott Peck whose book The Road Less Traveled begins with the line, “Life is difficult.” He was right about that, especially concerning our denominational struggles. His best book, however, is titled, A Different Drum: Community Making and Peace. He says that the first stage in achieving real community is “pseudo-community” where everyone gathers together and glad-hands each other in superficial ways at Christmas, family reunions, or General Conference. There is an air of “How’ve you been?” or “Wow, it’s so good to see you.” He says that this huggy stage can last a short time or forever. I think that the UMC is way past a shallow pseudo-community unless we don’t know which side another person is on. If we don’t know, we sort of “fake it” and smile and steer clear of any conflict. Pseudo-community is the story of much of Christendom’s intra-familial and interpersonal squabbles.
The second stage can last a short or long time, too. Peck appropriately calls it “chaos.” Some groups, denominations, and families stay in chaos. How long has the UMC been in the chaos stage? It’s been a long time, at least since 1972. How much longer can we stand it? There are folks, however, who feel this is one of those subjects that is worth the chaos, no matter how long it takes. To follow Scott Peck’s advice, we must let chaos run its complete painful course or we’ll never appreciate or arrive at the next place on the journey to true community.
[Genuine community] is a place and space where there are distinctions or diversity of opinion, but there is also a unity.
The third stage is called “emptiness.” It can also last forever or not. It is a place where persons still have their differing opinions, but they are able to survive the tension because they care more about the other person(s) than they care about the presenting problem or themselves. Many are at that point in the UMC. It is a place of valuing, not demeaning, a place where “sacred worth” is a reality. It is rare to see such “emptiness” around human sexuality debates. Our words sometimes slide over the “sacred worth” language of The Discipline and we accent the “incompatible” part of the sentence. Both sides need to tread carefully and allow a holy emptiness to settle upon us. But we need to move on. Staying in emptiness seems laudable, but it can also be a depression-filled place of inertia.
Of course, the last stage is “community.” Scott Peck doesn’t describe it as a homogenous place where everyone thinks alike. Instead it is a place and space where there are distinctions or diversity of opinion, but there is also a unity. Unity is hard to define because it is seldom seen. We talk about it. We promote it. I’m oft to say, “I believe in the unity of the church,” but what does that really mean or entail. What is that going to look like or make me do? My personal biggest fear is that some who assume they have arrived at “community” have actually slipped back into “pseudo-community.” If there’s no honest dialogue and valuing then it’s a sham which by definition is pseudo.
So, what do you think? We can choose to move up and down, and back again on these stages of community. We can stay in places along the way too long or not long enough. Is there hope to reach emptiness, or are we stuck in chaos? I daresay most of us would prefer to go back to the superficial stage of pseudo-community than accept what’s happening now. But, maybe we can count all this contention and process as a holy gift. We have a real chance to have a significant movement of the Holy Spirit in Portland if we actually try to move through these stages.
You can’t legislate “community.” It has to be experienced. I long for the day when we reach it, and pray we’ll stay there for a real long time!
The Rev. Tim McClendon serves as senior pastor of St. John's United Methodist Church in Aiken, SC. An accomplished potter, he blogs at A Potter's View.