I am a Wesleyan evangelical. My life has been saved and is (slowly) being changed by Jesus.
In my opinion, being evangelical means, at its core, living from an ongoing internal assurance of God’s love for you and therefore finding yourself freed to do everything possible to carry the Gospel to others.
Since the election of Karen Oliveto as a Bishop in The United Methodist Church, there has been an understandably intensified experience of conflict throughout the Church.
And that’s okay. We remember from Pastoral Care 101 that conflict is to be expected in human life, especially in organizations, and most especially in organizations made up of millions of humans who find their unity not in a uniform ideology but in a living God and a process of salvation based on undergoing that God. With a unity rooted in Something as dynamic as that, conflict is not a problem to be eradicated but a constitutional part of the thing itself and potentially even a means of grace.
Of course it’s how we deal with the conflict that makes it redemptive or toxic. So as we continue to engage the ongoing set of questions and concerns around human sexuality, let’s do it as maturing disciples of Jesus. For Christ’s sake, let’s be careful with the accusations we make and the metaphors we employ.
For example, let’s not assume, as some do, that because someone has a more conservative hermeneutic when it comes to sexuality or wishes that an openly lesbian Bishop had not been elected, they are a blatantly homophobic hater or a hard-hearted hypocrite. A good faith approach both inspires a genuine openness to hear how someone thinks and feels about the subjects at hand and expects that the other’s journey is as complex as ours.
On the other hand, let’s not assume that supporters of the election of Bishop Oliveto (I quite joyously am one) are petulant children chomping at the bit for church schism (I quite emphatically am not). Let’s not assert, as some have, that the Western Jurisdiction has willfully sent divorce papers to the rest of the Church. The aforementioned good faith approach of actually listening to the testimonies of others will probably dissuade us from such a simplistic charge.
N.B. It’s interesting to me that most of the voices accusing the Western Jurisdiction of triggering schism haven’t offered any similar critiques of Bishop Scott Jones and his unflinching willfulness to force a church trial of the Rev. Cynthia Meyer (for being a “self-avowed, practicing” lesbian and a clergyperson at the same time) despite the commitment of the Council of Bishops “…to explore options to help the church live in grace with one another — including ways to avoid further complaints, trials and harm while we uphold the Discipline.” If some of the same writers who have taken to social media to express anger or grief or snark at the election of Bishop Oliveto — in the service, they say, of a moderate or centrist position — had publicly shared similar sentiments because of the actions of Bishop Jones, perhaps their analysis might be received as more properly centrist and as more deeply sincere.
So I wonder: can we shelf the schism rhetoric for a while in order to remember that we are, in Paul’s language, the Body of Christ, which is not a mere metaphor but an ontological reality?
We are the Body of Christ. If that reality and the necessarily evangelical life that flows from it are kept central, I believe that we will be able to hold (not deny) difference and resist schism as we also commit to truly doing no harm.
That’s obviously easier proclaimed than practiced, so here are five suggestions for living into a more profound unity. I am committed to these myself, though I am no saint. I try, I fail, I try again, I fail again. I believe that God uses the trying and the failing: such is the process of continuing to be saved.
1) Pray silently.
Give an hour a day to God for meditation on Scripture and contemplative prayer. Particularly I recommend silent prayer, and even more particularly, I recommend silent prayer before you begin your day, before you begin your work, before your ego has a chance to fully wake up and begin to plan and plot. As someone with a huge ego, I speak as one with authority on this!
A receptive, or apophatic, prayer practice (as differentiated from an active, or cataphatic, practice) means that you’ll spend less of your devotional time telling God what you think is right. Personally, I’m a fan of Centering Prayer, but whatever medium you choose, the key is to give God time and space to work in you and on you. To let go of your own words, desires, concepts, truths, maybe even your own feelings. Not forever, but for an hour. See what happens when you let the Spirit do the work the Spirit wants to do, not the work you think the Spirit should do.
2) Spend 20% of your time in the community.
Change up your schedule to spend at least a full day of your workweek making and building relationships with people who aren’t part of your church or of any organized religion. For many clergy and laity, this will be totally new, as we are used to spending the bulk of our time with church folk. There’s nothing wrong with church folk. I love church folk! But see how your missional outlook changes when you regularly have coffee with unaffiliated folks (“nones” and “dones”) and listen to why they are where they are. Put this commitment high on your list of ministry priorities. Work intentionally to set up meetings with community leaders. Join a weekly group that’s not faith-oriented and hang out with those folks week in, week out.
3) Plan a new expression of Christian community to launch from your congregation.
Start a vision process now that has as its 2-3 year goal the emergence of a new way of being in mission. Pour a significant portion of your congregation’s energy, time, and money into that experiment. Think of it as holy R&D. Help people get freed up to build something new, compelling, and beautiful for God.
4) Clean up your own side of the street.
The temptation to judge and evaluate others is, at least for me, very real. In the 12-step recovery program I’m part of, I am told that I can treat that temptation by focusing on my own shadow side and by trying to clean up the mess on my side of the street. I think 12-step recovery got that wisdom from Jesus, who teaches that before we attempt to remove the sawdust in someone else’s eye, we first need to remove the 4×4 obstructing our own vision.
I can’t speak for all human beings, but if you’re anything like me, there’s an endless supply of personal ocular lumber. The other day I got into a Twitter argument with someone. The discourse stayed civil and I think my points were fair and sound, but when I finished, I felt this surge of self-righteousness and self-importance. Again, I can’t speak for you, but when I felt that chemical surge, I knew I was in dangerous spiritual territory. If you know what I’m talking about, the next time you feel tempted with that kind of energy, do some street cleaning. Look directly at the stuff that blocks you and warps you. Honestly confront the idols and drugs of choice that you use consciously and unconsciously to maintain your superior sense of self. After a couple doses of that treatment, I usually feel a lot humbler and a lot kinder toward those with whom I disagree.
5) Gradually rethink your boundaries.
I sat next to a really smart, really committed United Methodist Bishop at breakfast one morning during a theological forum in Texas last winter. We were talking and he asked why I thought the church I had helped to plant in Chicago had grown so quickly. When I responded that among other factors, it was because we were trying to be a third-way, inclusive Wesleyan congregation, he seemed to get defensive. He said, Well, if it’s growing because you have no boundaries or foul lines, that’s not good growth. I said, Bishop, with all due respect, it’s not that we disagree that there should be boundaries around or clear descriptions of what discipleship of Jesus looks like, it’s that we disagree about what those lines are. Do you think we might dive deeper than the obsessive foul lines around human sexuality we’ve set up denominationally and reclaim, say, the Wesleyan process of salvation and the traditional evangelical doctrines (repentance, justification, regeneration, sanctification) as a way of clarifying what healthy, holy pathways are and what maturing disciples of Jesus look like? He wasn’t convinced of my take, nor was I of his, but this is a long-term communal project that we’ll have time for if we take the low-hanging fruit of schism off the table.
As I write these little suggestions down, I realize how fragmented and unsystematic they are. But I hope that you’ll receive them as I genuinely intend them: as little practices of hope that perhaps God will meet us in and use, in concert with many other offerings, to show us — all together — a more excellent way.