GROWING IN GRACE
Friday, Jan. 3, 2020, may well go down as a significant day in Methodist history. If I use my imagination, I can already hear a Methodist History professor teaching seminary students in 30 years about the day our denomination announced its biggest split since the issue of slavery divided us in the 19th Century.
13: The number of text messages I received within about 15 minutes of the story about the new protocol document breaking.
11: The number of church members, specifically, who called within the first four hours of the story breaking.
6: The number of non-Methodist friends who stopped me the following morning at the YMCA to ask what it meant. Turns out when you make national news, people of all denominational stripes start paying attention to The United Methodist Church.
No doubt there are many emotions swirling even as you read this column some 96 hours following such a paramount announcement. Some may be feeling a sense of shock and surprise because this proposal (at least on the surface) seems to turn back the decisions made at General Conference 2019. Others may be feeling a sense of anger: how could a proposal be made that seems to go against what the majority (at least according to General Conference voting) of the church wants? Still others may be feeling a sense of relief: finally, we can be done with the 40+ year battle over LGBTQ inclusion. For all, I’m sure, there is a sense of grief that accompanies whatever you’re feeling: the church, as we know it, will likely never the same after May.
In times like this, I am reminded of the wisdom of Fred Rogers: “Confronting our feelings and giving them appropriate expression always takes strength, not weakness.” This is to say whatever you’re feeling today is okay. In times of confusion and despair when we long for God to airlift us out of our current circumstance, we can take heart that it is then that God parachutes in to be with us, no matter what you’re feeling or what side of the debate you find yourself on.
In sorting through our complicated feelings, I wonder if there’s not a word from God that could guide us — not only through this circumstance, but into the new year. An Epiphany, if you will, that could shine light in the darkness and shed light on the path God wants us to walk in 2020. Two such Epiphanies occurred to me over the weekend.
The first Epiphany came to me late Friday night in one of the more unlikely places: Twitter. I was scrolling the reactions numerous Methodists were having in real time. From what I was reading, grief seemed to be the most prevalent reaction. And like a whisper, I felt God say, “The church was never YOURS to begin with. It belongs to Jesus and it exists for the sake of THOSE NOT YET A PART OF IT.” And it hit me: while it’s okay to be sad over change (that’s a normal emotion), we cannot lose sight of the fact that the church doesn’t exist to serve US — it exists for others, especially those in search of God’s redeeming love and grace. As we manage this season of change, local churches should challenge themselves to focus more on reaching new people and less on what we perceive to be losing (or gaining). The local church is only as strong as its ability to reach outside of its walls for the sake of Jesus Christ. Likewise, I would challenge our district and conference leadership to focus more on seeing its mission as less about preserving the institution as it is, and more about imagining what we could become as a result of this change. The district and conference are only as strong as their ability to develop and empower leaders and create the framework through which life-changing discipleship can happen throughout its boundaries.
The second Epiphany came through an email conversation I had with a colleague and friend with whom I disagree on the issue of full inclusion of LGBTQ persons. In voicing our disagreement over email, it was moving that we were able to do so while also affirming each other’s gifts and graces. We didn’t try to change each other’s minds at all. But I felt heard. And I hope he did too. We need to do more of this in the coming months. We need to hear and affirm one another as children of God even, and maybe especially, when we disagree. The reformation of the Methodist Church may be born out of difficult disagreement, but it can also birth something else — namely a witness to the world that persons who disagree can do so with love and grace, upholding the humanity and blessedness of one other, and seeking to follow the command of Christ to be a peacemaker through it all.
I’ve made a number of New Years’ resolutions this year. But, after Friday, I think I should add to my list: 1) A renewed love and mission for the lost; and 2) A commitment to be a peacemaker in all I say, do, and tweet.
The Rev. Ben Gosden is senior pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church in Savannah. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.