This week as the United Methodist Church stood on the precipice of an enormous cliff on the verge of falling off of it and into a dark abyss below, we, at the last moment, stepped back from the edge and back on to safe ground. As we did you could hear the sighs of relief from everyone there and even among those viewing the live-stream. In opting for a commission to study the issue of sexuality for at least the next two years (and they were given wide latitude by General Conference to study it as long as they feel they need to), the United Methodist Church will remain “united” for at least two more years.
I, for one, had hoped that as we stood on the edge of the precipice, staring out into the unknown vista of sky before us with the earth far below, that we had jumped headlong into the unknown. I felt we were supposed to jump as much as I am sure Peter was certain that Jesus called him out of the safety of the boat onto the windy, rainy, stormy seas to walk on water. It would have been madness to jump just as it was madness to walk on water! I mean, compared to the safe ground we now stand on it is always a fearless and sometimes even reckless act to follow Jesus into the great unknown and unforeseeable, but that is exactly why I think we should have jumped.
I believe it was an enormous mistake to step back and take the safe and easy path back to the same comfortable house we know well, even though everyone who lives in the old house is deeply unhappy. We are unhappy in the house where we reside because, we suppose, we don’t much like our housemates. But the house is pretty much all most of us have known. And since we are back in familiar, though unhappy, surroundings we decided to address what we think is making us unhappy in much the same way we have numerous times before: we will establish yet another commission to study the issue of sexuality and then report the findings to the larger special session of General Conference where whatever findings are offered will likely be voted down.
The divorce between liberals and conservatives seems inevitable and as a child watching my parents on both sides of the divide continuously argue, I can honestly say, I look forward to the breakup. There is a complete lack of trust and even respect. Forty years of fighting will do that. Moreover, you simply cannot find compromise when one side demands that before you ever come to the table you must cease being who you are and conform to their biblical and biological understanding of God’s design for your life. The left side says the right is free to believe what they want while the right side says the left is free to stop being who they are.
We are irretrievably stuck.
Thus, I believe it is time to follow the worthy example of Paul and Barnabas and to bless one another, separate, and follow God as passionately as we know how. It is far past time. I am not quite sure we will bless one another with any kind of sincerity, but I truly pray that will happen. I can’t pray for unity anymore with any authenticity. Regardless, it is time to leave behind the rancor and the denial of humanization that has happened for the past 40+ years of our LGBTQ sisters and brothers and to pursue what is next. What does God want us to do next? I kept wondering why if other progressives were asking this question. Where does God want us to jump?
You see, I actually do not believe that we should separate simply because liberals and conservatives can’t stand each other and have entirely lost the ability to speak to each other. If we split for that reason alone – and I honestly fear that we might – then we will certainly be more open and progressive (which is good!), but we will also be the same clunky, top-heavy, slow, overly bureaucratic institution that has been as irrelevant and ineffective as we have been for decades. Just smaller. Let’s dream bigger than this!
We have got to know what truly is holding us captive us if we are to experience and walk into liberation or even more, be ambassadors of liberation to the world. God wants to set us and all of Creation free!
Conservative ideological and theological restrictions are annoying, but they are not what bind us. The precipice we are to jump from is the precipice of institutionalism and structured, mandated, outdated, irrelevant connectionalism. This is what we have a unique opportunity to experience liberation from. Moreover, what we have a chance to experience liberation to is a 21st Century model of the New Testament Church.
The scene is set in a low income neighborhood in a medium-sized city in the Midwest (though this picture is found throughout the United States and increasingly more in other parts of the world). The city has high unemployment, rising crime, common occurrences of police brutality, and past incidents of racism continue to scar existing relationships between the residents and city and police and between residents themselves. This is where a band of Progressive Methodists has settled to form community.
The families that make up this band are multi-cultural and intergenerational. They are gay, straight, trans, queer, coming from all kinds of theological and political backgrounds. They just hunger for the same thing: an authentic expression of being the Body of Christ, in love with Jesus, with one another, and with the people they share life with in their neighborhood. They read and study the Scriptures, they just don't worship it - they worship Jesus who brought them together, saved them, and who sustains them. This band of Progressive Methodists lives incarnationally among the poor in this city and they work with existing social services and faith communities (even the newly formed suburban-based Good News Evangelical Methodist Church of the Tightly Wound!).
They help care for the felt needs of the community, though they are also actively engaged in organizing the people so that their voices can be heard by decision-makers on the city, state and even federal level. They just helped the city pass a minimum wage increase to 12$ in their city, less than what their know folks need, but higher than what folks have. And when they win justice for their neighbors, or when they add to their number (which happens frequently – I mean, who doesn’t want to be a part of this!), they do what they do best – they celebrate!
Weekly they work with the people in their neighborhood and weekly they meet. They meet to eat together, dream together, plan together, strategize together and pray and sing together. They share life.
Every couple of months or so the leaders of this band (which includes leaders indigenous to the neighborhood) gather with other bands of Progressive Methodists from around the state who also are incarnationally located in hurting communities. When they get together the joy and passion and love that is felt at their weekly meeting is multiplied as the various bands are hungry for fellowship and to share ideas on what they are doing and how they can be more effective. Their times together are filled with laughter and joy and tears at the struggles they face.
And they talk excitedly about the next time that the General Gathering will commence; that time once every few years when bands from all over the US and increasingly in other parts of the world, come together and do what was done at the state gatherings – to celebrate, share, eat (Lord they can eat!), sing, pray, give praise, cry and laugh. In fact, the Progressive Methodists laugh even now when they remember at the last General Gathering when someone brought up an idea to write down some rules and regulations and to better systematize the tremendous growth of Progressive Methodism. There were even “motions” to set up a hierarchy with central offices and numerous paid staff.
Upon hearing the “motion” at the General Gathering there was at first a stunned silence. It wasn’t that long ago when Progressive Methodists remembered how bound they were to such rules and regulations and they feared returning to that kind of captivity. Suddenly, someone broke out in song and the measure was forgotten and they went back to what they knew best: liberating laughter, love and a celebration of justice. No one had time to make rules and set up a hierarchy that benefits so few and costs so much. They had real work to do and everyone was focused on that and on loving and lifting one another up.