Finding a way to live together in the tension

I spent some time on Facebook following the announcement of the Judicial Council decision regarding the election of Karen Oliveto as a Bishop.  I read articles from UMC news agencies and the pastoral letter of our Bishop David Bard.  I read the letter from the Council of Bishops and a piece from the New York Times.  I especially appreciated the letter of our Bishop and the gracious nature of his words.

In the midst of the Facebook comments about it all there were − of course − a variety of reactions.  For some, there was anger at what was viewed as another legalistic response by the church to an individual gifted and loved by God.  There were in other comments a sense of hopelessness towards the future.  There were others passionately presenting their feelings that the Council had upheld an appropriate standard.  There were lots of comments expressing a variety of opinions on these two basic themes.

One comment though stood out for me.  It was in a long string of reactions representing all that I shared above and it said this, “Wow, I can’t believe that I belong to the same church as some of these people.”

On one level I understood this completely.  When we see people who claim the name we claim and they are acting in ways, holding beliefs that seem to be far from our own, far from our understanding of the “essential” components of our faith, we wonder how we can stay in fellowship and connection with them given their position or perspective.  I understand that completely.  It is exactly what has gotten us to the 28,000 or so different Christian denominations in the world.

But on another level I don’t get it at all. It’s absolutely counter intuitive to what we know about the Church.  There is a reason that Jesus makes such a point of calling us to “love one another.”  There’s a reason why Jesus suggests that we might need to forgive one another from time to time!  Because the Church is not designed to be a homogenized group of folks who all think alike.  In fact the church is full of people who would never get together anywhere else.  So on any number of issues around any number of strongly held perspectives, we will differ.  That is just a reality, a reality that Jesus understood and anticipated.

But for me, this reality provides for us a great opportunity to be a witness to the world around us.  It is an opportunity, especially in these days when our culture is experiencing an incredibly high level of polarization, to provide an example of how we can disagree in very significant ways and still love one another, still focus on the core mission of the Church and find ways to live together in the tension.  The Church is not designed to be a place where it’s easy to be community.  If it were easy for us to love one another Jesus and the Epistle writers wouldn’t have had to mention it so many times!  But since we are called to be that kind of a community, to be that kind of witness, I pray that through “The Commission on a Way Forward,” through conversations and prayer, through the power of God’s Spirit at work in me and you, we will find the grace and power to be the Church − even as we struggle with one another.  I invite you to pray to that end.


It IS possible to stay relevant amid today’s changing culture!

I read this morning that Sears has put out a statement saying that they have “substantial doubt” that its company’s doors will stay open.  Other retail giants that have been main stays all my life, anchor stores in mall across the country, have been closing stores in many locations.  They’re not doing anything like the business they did just a few decades ago.

I wonder what folks would have said fifty years ago, if someone had suggested that these giants would close?  I suspect there would be a chuckle at the idea.  Sears was founded by Richard Warren Sears and Alvah Curtis Roebuck in 1886 for heaven’s sake!  It’s been a retail center in cities and towns across America for 130 years.  It will always be here would have been the natural assumption.

But then came as well as lots of other .coms.  Then came Walmart and Meijer.  I looked at my own Amazon account and realized that I made my first purchase from them in 1999 when they were primarily a book company.  I had three orders that year.  Last year I had 66 orders for everything from Altoids to computer parts, and clothes to vitamins.

There are other factors, I’m sure, that have affected Sears and other companies.  But the fact is the world of buying and selling is changing like so many other things in our culture, and some of those institutions that we once thought would always be there, are simply going by the wayside.

And the analogy to the Church is not a hard one to make, is it?  The world has changed and it is changing for us too.  There are many shifts that we could name.  Worship itself is one of them.  From the day of the week we offer worship opportunities to the location where we offer them, things are by necessity changing.

By the way there is a BIG worship training event on our District this Saturday with Kim Miller in case you hadn’t heard!!

Click → HERE ← for details!

Giving in the church has changed too.  If your congregation doesn’t offer at least automatic withdrawal from a bank account, if not instant giving on a web site; if you are relying only on people writing checks or putting cash in the plate,  then you are missing a significant portion of potential givers.

These are just a couple areas where our world is different than it was in the past, and if we don’t pay attention and move with the shifts we may well find ourselves ─ someday soon ─ putting out our own press release indicating our “substantial doubt” related to our ability to keep the doors open. And more importantly to carry out the mission of sharing Christ’s love in a broken and hurting world.


Focusing our Energies and Faith in the Direction of Hope

As I think about all the uncertainty before us, in our culture, and in our Church, there is significant angst among many.  As I was thinking about this, especially in the church context, I was reminded of the story of Jeremiah in the 32nd chapter of the book with his name.  It was not a high moment in Israel’s history.  They were about to go into a new reality.  They were about to be taken from their homes into Babylon.  Everyone was fearful.  Everyone was looking toward loss.  I’m certain there was great concern and blame flying in lots of directions.  In the face of this situation, Jeremiah starts purchasing land.  He makes sure that all the T’s are crossed and the I’s are dotted.  He purchases land that will soon be taken over by others.  It makes no sense…except as a statement of faith.  It is a profound statement of faith.  God, Jeremiah believes, will bring them through the difficult days in Babylon.  God, Jeremiah believes, will faithfully lead them through to the other side.

The other day in a meeting I attended, Dirk Elliott (New Church Director for the Michigan Area) shared with us the goals set by the General Conference regarding growth in the United States UMC in the next quadrennium.

These goals are:

  • 1,000,000 New Disciples
  • 50,000 New Places (Small Groups)
  • 5,000 New Faith Communities (Additional New Worship Services)
  • 500 New Churches (New Chartered Congregations)

In a day when we are struggling to stay together, the General Conference is inviting us to focus our energies and our faith is the direction of hope.  The General Conference is calling us to examine our efforts as an Annual Conference, District, Local Church, and individual around reaching the next and the next with the love of Christ.  They are calling us to do so in new ways, to engage with new energy this core component of who we are as Christ followers and as children of John Wesley.

These are uncertain days.  In our culture and in our church, but I wonder what would happen if we focused on this call put out to us from the General Conference.  I wonder what would happen if we put our stakes down, in the midst of the ambiguity around us, and said with Jeremiah, we are people of faith!  We serve a God who does amazing things.  I wonder what would happen if we decided these goals are very reachable and that we were going to be a part of seeing them accomplished?  I wonder what would happen if we changed our focus from fear and division, to hope and faith?  I wonder what would happen.