In Pursuit of Rightness

rabbduckAs Edwin Friedman first reminded us, anxious times bring with them an overpowering need for certainty. And the times have rarely been more anxious for the United Methodist Church than they are right now. For starters, this denomination is experiencing a state of unprecedented decline… a decline that could – if not checked – spell the end of “the people called Methodists.”

We also just concluded a quadrennial global gathering of lay and clergy leaders that ended with a resounding lack of resolution on the fundamental question of how our policies as a global denomination might be shaped to account for a variety of expressions of human sexuality.

When you stop to think about it for a moment, even trying to hold that specific conversation in that specific environment is a pretty bold and dangerous undertaking. Putting 894 people together, some from the uber-liberal Pacific Northwest of the U.S., some from countries in Africa where people are beaten, stoned, and jailed for being gay, and asking them to come to a common mind on the issue is just… asking for trouble.

And so, once again as predicted, the can gets kicked down the road.

Therefore we reach out anxious fingers and grasp for certainty; something solid to hold on to… something that will quell our anxious stomachs. We want… no, we NEED… to be able to say with confidence, “THIS is right. THIS is true.”

We also feel a need to be seen standing in league with that rightness. It may be because we believe that in so doing, our rightness will shine like a beacon to the rest of the world, the lost and confused will be drawn to us and our rightness, and the denomination will be saved from certain doom.

The problem is: we were not called to be right. We – as the denomination called United Methodists – were not called to survive either.

But when we make rightness (defined here as “perfect alignment with God”) our ultimate objective, we make a grotesquely arrogant assumption. We assume a human ability to perfectly know the mind of God. We also assume a human ability to live perfectly in tune with our understanding of the mind of God.

These are both objectives I aim for as a person of faith… the knowing and doing of God’s will. They are also objectives I fall far short of every moment of every day.

As I see it, there are only two conditions that make a perfect understanding of and perfect alignment with the mind of God possible; either the human mind must be unlimited in its reach (in order to match God’s unlimitedness), or God must be limited (to match the limitedness of our minds).

Because you see, if we really believe what we say about God in our hymns and our praise and worship songs (God of Wonders, Beyond our Galaxy, You Are Holy… In Light Inaccessible, Hid From Our Eyes, etc.), we would be forced to concede that the full depth, complexity, and wisdom of God is ultimately unknowable by mere humans. At least by me, that’s for sure.

And a necessary corollary to that concession is that we would also no longer be able to say that the sum total of all that God was, is, or ever will be is succinctly contained within the sixty-six books of our authoritative text; the Holy Bible.

We can continue to say that God speaks through the words of scripture. We can say that God inspired the writers of scripture. But we simply cannot say that God stopped speaking and inspiring humans when the last period of the Bible was put in place. An unlimited, infinite God doesn’t stop speaking when humans stop writing.

All of this is prelude to explaining my current state of discouragement as I ponder the conclusion of the 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church. A sizable faction of our global denomination seems bent on shaping the church’s policies to fit their avowed “perfect understanding” of God’s will in regard to human sexuality.

For them, there is no latitude… no wiggle room… no space for compromise on this question. “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” is their posture.

This position threatens to force the United Methodist Church to become something it never was – in my opinion – intended to be; the defender of one strand of Christian orthodoxy. I love what Adam Hamilton said to the seminarians he spoke with the other day in Portland; that the UM Church is known for being the “big tent” church with room for people who hold a wide range of interpretations on issues relevant to our faith. I love that this denomination has become known as the “both/and” church rather than the “either/or” church… where we strive to retain an appreciation for truth that resides on both sides of an issue.

And so it is painful to witness proposals surface designed to divide the church between those who strive for rightness and those who strive for love. Because if we were to truly live out the calling I believe God has placed on our lives, we would find a way to retain both of these camps under a single tent.

Today I am grateful for the tireless and often thankless work of the men and women who served as delegates to that General Conference. I am grateful to those who still strive to arrive at a solution that allows the word “United” to still mean something in the name of our denomination.

And I pray that the Holy Spirit will flow and move and permeate hearts on both sides of the Great Sexual Divide and convict us in a way that draws our focus to the real mission Christ calls us to: Making Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World.

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