Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS
2016 Book of Discipline
“43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters,[a] what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” – Matthew 5:43-48 (NRSV)
My friend in seminary, the Rev. John Plummer, used to call me a “fence sitter.” John was more conservative theologically and I was more liberal. But, I rarely expressed my views strongly. And often, I would try to find what I could live with in opposing views. John used to say to me, “Sometime, Shitama, you’re going to have to take a stand.”
I know the Rev. Plummer is correct.
But, I’ve also learned that there is something about being in the middle that is valuable.
Don’t get me wrong. I have VERY strong opinions. And they are seldom middle of the road. Ask my family or the people that work with me.
I have strong opinions on the big issues of the day, especially the ones that divide us. I don’t usually express myself on those. It’s partly to avoid conflict, but it’s mostly to try to find the spark.
What do I mean by that?
In Paul Scott Wilson’s book, Imagination of the Heart, he shows that the power of the sermon is in finding the spark between opposites. He likens it to electricity where you have two opposite poles, positive and negative. If you hold two oppositely charged wires close enough to each other, but not touching, there is a spark created in the gap. He says that’s the power in preaching.
Wilson says that there are two pairs of opposites that are the foundation of scripture: Law & Gospel and Judgment & Grace. Law and judgment are similar, as are gospel and grace.
If you have one side of the pair there is no spark.
If all you ever talk about is law and judgment, you are beating people over the head with the Bible and just making them feel bad.
If all you ever talk about is gospel and grace, you are making people feel good, but not calling them to accountability to any standard.
Wilson’s genius is in understanding that you need both poles to create the spark. It’s in the tension that energy is created.
For example, when the standard is to love your enemies (law), it feels nearly impossible to achieve. In fact, Matthew 5:48 tells us to be perfect as God is perfect. Who can do that? If that’s all there is, I feel like I’m just letting God down. But when I couple that with the grace of God, which can enable me to love my enemy, there is a spark of inspiration. When, by the grace of God, it actually happens in my life, the spark ignites a fire in my soul.
So, I’m going to jump down off the fence for a minute.
I believe my denomination, The United Methodist Church, should change its stance to allow the ordination of LGBTQ persons and to allow all marriages to be celebrated in our churches.
That being said, since I am ordained, I have covenanted to uphold current church law, which I will do. If I decide to disobey church law I will do so on principle and will be prepared to turn in my ordination orders, if required. I’m not saying this is what I will do. I’m just saying that from an integrity standpoint, I either agree to uphold the covenant of my ordination or I must be willing to give that ordination up.
Now, I’ll start climbing back up the fence.
I believe The United Methodist Church must find a way for us to live together, allowing each annual conference to determine how it will handle ordination and each church to determine how it will handle weddings.
This would make a lot of people unhappy. But I believe this issue is bigger than human sexuality, justice, holiness and our own denomination.
I believe it is an opportunity to make a statement about the power of God to unite us as Christians, despite our differences.
Some of my closest friends are at the opposite end of the political and theological spectrum than I am. I have many clergy colleagues who also fit this category. Yet, we show respect and yes, Christian love, for each other. We put our differences aside because our common bond as Jesus followers is stronger than any of our differences. That bond enables us to do ministry together. To reach out to the least, the last and the lost. We pray together and serve together.
The United Methodist Church does that right now.
The impact of ministries such as Volunteers in Mission, the United Methodist Committee on Relief and Imagine No Malaria are significant because we work together. What we call in UM speak, our connectional nature, enables us to do more together than we could apart.
These are just a few examples. Another is the ministry I serve. We have nearly 200 UM camps and retreats across the US because of our work together. Another example is Africa University. Founded by The UMC, it has produced over 4000 graduates who are addressing needs such as sustainable agriculture, disease prevention and ethical governance. The examples of our connectional work are too numerous to list all of them here. I think you get the point.
If The UMC splits, as many predict, our common work will suffer. Many would say that the two or more resulting denominations can still support these same ministries. But, do you believe they can do so as effectively when each has its own administrative structure? I don’t.
More importantly, if our denomination splits, it will be a spiritual failure.
We will have let our human condition get in the way of the power of God to unite. We will be just one more casualty in the culture wars and one more schism in the history of the church. And each side can stand tall, knowing that they stuck to their principles.
To me, this does not feel like God’s way.
You see, I believe that somewhere between the principled stands of each side is a place to live together that is grounded in the love and grace of Jesus.
It enables us to see that living and serving together, despite our differences, is the biggest witness to the power of God in this world. To me, that is the spark that can ignite the flame of God’s spirit in our lives and in our United Methodist Church. I am praying we can find a “way forward.”
The Rev. Jack Shitama serves as executive director of Pecometh Camp & Retreat Ministries in the Peninsula-Delaware Annual Conference. He blogs at Christian Leaders, from which this post is republished with the author's permission.