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United Methodists, Please Don’t Lose Our Witness!

Dear Fellow Followers of Jesus in the United Methodist Church,

One year from today, the 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church will have concluded. One year from today, people I dearly love will breathe a sigh of relief that it’s all over for another quadrennium. One year from today, people I dearly love will be heartbroken, perhaps to the point of leaving our church. One year from today, people I dearly love will be elated and filled with joy and hope.

I can’t foresee how the debates will proceed about human sexuality and other topics that are highly charged–emotionally, spiritually, missionally, and otherwise. Nor do I know how our church’s Book of Discipline will change, if at all. But I feel certain of this–one year from today, some United Methodists will feel that they’ve won, and others will feel that they’ve lost.

One year from today, people who outwardly consider themselves brothers and sisters in Christ will leave Portland, Oregon, feeling that they have either triumphed over or been defeated by their opponents. I find that heartbreaking, and I can’t help but feel that God finds it heartbreaking too.

I have seen the divide very clearly in my own circle of friends and sphere of influence in just the past few days. When United Methodist Communications released the story on Monday about our Connectional Table’s proposal to remove the Book of Discipline’s prohibitive language about sexuality, my Facebook friends were seemingly equally divided and equally convicted in their responses. Some were exuberant. Others were disgusted. Some derided the Connectional Table for sounding another peal of our church’s death knell. Others praised the Connectional Table for offering our church a new potential route toward vitality and life.

I have no problem with my friends’ differing perspectives. We will always have differences of opinion and conviction. God made us, and God made each of us differently and uniquely. What causes my heart to ache is when we Christians vilify and demonize the people who don’t share our perspective, when we view a person as an opponent to be out-argued, out-maneuvered, and ultimately out-voted.

We let ourselves off the hook because we convince ourselves (seemingly regardless of our perspective and conviction), that we are taking a stand, making a case, winning an argument, and maybe even fighting a fight in the name of God. When we understand ourselves to be the ones who are standing up for God, it’s fairly easy for us to believe that anyone who disagrees with us ultimately disagrees with God. Since we see ourselves standing on the side of God, and therefore on the side of good, the one who opposes us must be standing on the side of evil, or at least on the side of something less than holy.

At worst, sometimes very subtly or almost even imperceptibly, our vision becomes impaired. We lose our ability to see fellow children of God, fearfully and wonderfully knit together in his image in our mothers’ wombs. We lose sight of fellow lambs of the Good Shepherd’s flock. We can no longer see fellow members of the Body of Christ or fellow neighbors to be loved as we love ourselves. We become blind to the reality that we are all fellow sinners of God’s redemption.

Instead, we see adversaries, opponents, even outright enemies to the redemptive work of Jesus Christ in the world.

Adversary. Opponent. Enemy. Any one of these is an acceptable translation of the Greek word/name satan. God forbid that we see or treat each other as adversaries!

There, my friends, is the danger. Regardless of our place on the theological spectrum, it’s awfully easy to fall into a polar worldview, in which we see ourselves as the defenders of the cause of Christ, and we see others as, well, other.

How does that happen? Again, I believe it’s a matter of vision. We become so focused on principle that we fail to see people. In our zeal to glorify God by embracing, espousing, and arguing a cause, we overlook the one commandment that Jesus says is comparable to loving God–the commandment to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

Notice the emphasis in that last sentence. Christians, that’s what’s different about us. As Jesus said, everyone loves the people who love them back. What sets apart followers of Jesus is our love for those who disagree with or even persecute us. Jesus commands us to love. It’s a requirement.

Jesus ups the ante even further. Not only does he expect us not to see the other as an adversary, not only does he command us to love the person with whom we disagree, but in his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, he warns us about our very attitudes toward each other:

21“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”

That tells me loudly and clearly that we should be very humble in our praying, discerning, conferencing, debating, and voting. To see the person who may stand on the other side of the issue as a fool is to imperil our own souls.

Humility is the key, isn’t it? It’s humility that allows us to embrace and be embraced by God’s saving grace. It’s humility that enables us to see others as our neighbors, equally lovable as ourselves. It’s humility that enables us to realize that we need the other members of the body, and furthermore, that we just might grow from hearing their perspectives. It’s humility that enables us to love them (as we love ourselves) enough to really listen to them.

What if we really believed that the people with whom we disagree really meant what they said when they stood in front of a congregation–just as we did–and renounced evil, rejected wickedness, and confessed their faith in Christ? What if we believed that they were striving to love God and to follow Jesus just as fervently as we are? What if we were humble enough to ask ourselves, “What if I’m wrong?”

It’s a question that begs to be asked. Consider the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the scribes, the chief priests, the elders, the council, and the teachers of the law, and so many others in the gospel stories. In retrospect, we see them as the bad guys in the gospels, the antagonists to Jesus. Yet all of them were striving to lead Israel to a deeper devotion to God. They all had (or at least began with) very good intentions. They all were striving to make their land a little holier. They all thought they were teaching and doing God’s will.

At times, they disagreed with, argued with, and even scorned each other, because each claimed God’s endorsement. Their common ground was that they rejected and felt threatened by Jesus, ultimately to the point that they could no longer tolerate his presence in their midst or even on this earth.

Theirs is a humbling example. Their insistence that they were right led them to hate, rather than to love. In their zeal to protect and defend their corner of the kingdom of God or their part of the revelation of God’s will, they couldn’t or wouldn’t recognize the very presence of God in their midst. God save us from that kind of zeal!

Am I suggesting that we abandon our principles? Absolutely not! Any person of strong faith ought to be a person of strong convictions. Anyone with a strong faith ought to have a strong witness to share, even (and perhaps especially) with fellow followers of Christ. We help to shape each other’s convictions as we walk together in the footsteps of Jesus, going on to perfection together.

I’m simply asking that we lead with love. I’m praying that we will see the image of God, the neighbor, and the brother or sister in each other. I’m praying that we refrain from calling names, casting aspersions, lobbing rhetorical barbs, and assigning blame toward each other. We all lose when we see the adversary, the enemy, the opponent in each other.

Let’s remember Paul’s counsel to the Ephesians, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” In other words, the real adversary, opponent, or enemy is the very one, Satan, whose name is defined by those words. When we see each other as opponents, the victory is his.

Maybe the most important consideration and realization of all is this: we get in the way of our very mission and meaning when we treat each other as opponents. Years ago, one of my mentors in the faith planted a very helpful concept in my heart and mind. He said that we Christians can inadvertently “lose our witness” when the impression that we give to others is that we’re joyless and confrontational. We proclaim love with our lips but don’t reveal it in our relationships within the church. Too often, our dialogue becomes disagreement. Our conversation becomes conflict.

We United Methodists can all agree that our mission is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” We can do neither very well when so much of our passion is consumed in an effort to remodel what we perceive to be the other side of a divided house. We lose our witness when the cacophony of our internal bickering drowns out our external efforts to tell the story of Jesus and his love. People won’t believe our message of grace if they don’t encounter that grace in us.

May I suggest this? Instead of writing off a person with whom you are at odds, write a note. Invite him or her to share a meal or cup of coffee. Instead of shaking the dust from your sandals, shake the hand of a person who doesn’t share your perspective. Sit down to a conversation about your common love of Jesus Christ and his church. Find that love that binds us all together. Let’s follow the example of Jesus and learn to love each other before we try to change each other.

One year from today, the 2016 General Conference will be history. That means we have twelve months, fifty-two weeks, three hundred sixty-five days to get it right and to show the world how brothers and sisters in Christ live in communion and community with each other even when we disagree.

Fellow followers of Jesus Christ in the United Methodist Church, the world is watching. I believe a great cloud of witnesses is watching. Above all, our Lord Jesus Christ is watching. They not only await the outcomes of the General Conference, but they watch with hopeful expectation for the love and grace we will extend to each other as we work, talk, and vote toward those outcomes.

Many people whom I love dearly have very definite ideas about where the church ought to be. I pray that we’re all equally concerned about how we get there.

One year from today, we’ll see.

We’ll see.

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