Conjectures from This Guilty Bystander — Part I
A preliminary note: It is June, season of personal anniversaries, marriage (53 years) and ordination (51 years).
For United Methodists, this is a time when regional gatherings called Annual Conferences meet and plan– or at least that is the theory. After a fractious and harmful called Special General Conference in February, it appears that the denomination which I have served for over five decades is headed for a nervous breakdown – or an amputation of various body parts. Who knows what will survive and in what form?
I find myself thinking there must be some way to think about this in a larger context than “my denomination” and “my years of ministry.” I am reminded of the marvelous quote by Wes Jackson of the Land Institute, “If your life’s work can be accomplished in your lifetime, then you are not thinking big enough.”
So, I turn first to Thomas Merton for a larger frame on the world and the church — then over the next several postings (don’t know as yet how many) I will share some reflections from the view outside my window.
Thomas Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander was published in 1965. This wide-ranging collection of snippets from his notebooks is a rich resource. Merton wrote, “We believe, not because we want to know, but because we want to be” and spoke of the importance of “living fully in the condition of limited knowledge.“
I recall the day a van load of us, young seminarians, were carted off to Gethsemani Abby near Bardstown, Kentucky. The Vietnam War was raging; I remember the compelling call from “Father Louis” to live fully into our Protestantism. We should offer our delight in this struggle as “way-finders to the peaceable kingdom,” he said. Imagine my embarrassment upon learning later that this remarkable, robust monk, was in fact, Merton.
When I read Merton I read a provocateur, a convivialist, whose insights push me forward. My paltry, pale insights offered here are but wisps of smoke in comparison. He writes as a “bystander” from the monastic life. He shares “personal reflections, insights, metaphors, observations, judgements on readings and events.” I write from the balcony of retirement — or at least my several recent attempts to retire. I pray that while my thoughts will not match this master, I might have the vulnerability and a bit of the humility he displays in his work. Throughout Conjectures Merton reminds us of our vulnerability and that “We need not seek happiness, but, rather, discover that we are already happy.”
I will say more about near encounters with Merton and those who knew him in future posts. Before a few reflections on my denomination, United Methodism, and its current fracturing, this passage below from Conjuctures seems apt.
“I will be a better Catholic,” Merton writes, “not if I can refute every shade of Protestantism, but if I can affirm the truth in it and still go further. So, too, with the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists, etc. This does not mean syncretism, indifferentism, the vapid and careless friendliness that accepts everything by thinking of nothing. There is much that one cannot affirm and accept, but first one must say “yes” where one can. If I affirm myself as a Catholic merely by denying all that is Muslim, Jewish, Protestant, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., in the end I will find that there is not much left for me to affirm as a Catholic: and certainly no breath of the Spirit with which to affirm it.” (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, p. 133)
I’m having that sinking feeling — “Help, help,” United Methodist’s cry, “we’re Melting!” For me, these weeks of United Methodist Annual Conferences
around the U.S. have been times of Despair and Delight. United Methodism in 2019 feels like a glacier confronted with rapid climate change. We are, as the Brits would put it, in omnishambles. There are fissures all around. I delight because each week in May and June from many Annual Conferences has come good news. We are electing delegates to the next regular General Conference in the spring of 2020. Delight — a strong majority thus far, as represented by the delegates elected from Texas to Missouri to Florida to North Carolina want to turn away from the punitive past regarding our homosexual siblings.
Across the south and Midwest there is change. Trends strongly favor of Centrists and Progressives (as they have been labeled) picking up dozens of delegates. Will it be enough to change things? Well, probably not. Legislation may change, but hearts and minds are less pliable. It may be that we are stuck. Many of these new delegates are folks who seek to reverse the harmful and mean-spirited actions take at the February 2019 Special General Conference — reclaiming a more open stance for the church on issues of LGBTQI acceptance. The General Conference in February uncovered the ugly divisions that have been dividing the church for more that four decades. The presenting issue is homosexuality but it is so much deeper than this.
Truth is the denomination in the U.S. has been melting for years and we have been seeking answers in all the wrong places. Hearts and minds will never be changed so long as we see one another in categories, rather than as fellow children of God.
I am told by friends I trust on all sides that there is no mending this shattered church. “This broken family must now be dissolved,” they say. Many families, kinship networks are already stressed and separated. “Divorce is painful but it is not all bad,” I hear. I am told “Methodists have done this before” — remember we divided over slavery in 1844! I am told that United Methodism must be abandoned so that a new church can emerge. To my ears some of this talk sounds a bit like the language from Vietnam when some foolishly said “We had to destroy the village to save it.” Frankly, the talk of division comes too easily — Disaffiliation for what? Toward what end? It is the old metaphor of a glass half full and focusing on the empty part of the glass. What is the value, the potential, of that which is already in place? Yes, I will say it, there is a kind of naivete abroad when folks quickly say it is time to separate.
Nor does this talk of division ring true theologically for me. I think of I Corinthians 12 and 13 or the message to the early church found in Galatians. This month our Gospel lections were from John 14 and John 17. Are these not calls for the followers of Jesus to stay together? The prayer of Jesus presented in John 17 has been called the High Priestly prayer and the Great Ecumenical Prayer. Of course, Richard Rohr reminds us that United in Christ is not the same as the unity of the church. I know. Even more, however, I am shaped by Dietrich Bonhoeffer who even in the face of the division of his Lutheran Evangelical home in Germany between the Confessing Church and State church called on the focus to be on “Christ the Center” and not on the boundary lines of time and place.” Shall we separate now so that we can re-affiliate in twenty or thirty years? Have the so-called traditionalists listened to their adult children and grandchildren about this issue? A majority of young persons who call themselves “Evangelicals” don’t buy the desire to exclude others based on sexual orientation.
What might we do? This is the question many have pondered and most (including bishops and congregational leaders) have felt powerless to answer. It is about agency. By this, I mean, no one seems to have sufficient influence to make a difference. I am told that there are folks working on solutions behind the scenes. This is precisely my worry — how many groups are there? Doing what? Trading what for what? It feels very “in house” and based on old paradigms. Still, I acknowledge my ‘guilt’ in this whole mess. Even more, I grieve the pain caused by a church that for so long did such damage to persons based on the bigotry and discrimination of homophobia. I struggle with the question of what more might I have done?
My sense is that we are thinking too small, we are talking too much to ourselves, we are working in the star chambers called the Caucus Groups, General Conference, Annual Conference and Boards and Agencies.
Isn’t there a larger frame? Can we admit that we are asking the wrong questions? I think of Roseanne Haggerty’s Community Solutions and her emphasis on Housing First. She shows the need to “flip the script” on homelessness. First, she argues, provide a place to live! Stop believing persons much first earn safe shelter. Then work on the other social and emotional needs. In the wider economy and ecology, this is a better, more cost effective way of approaching things. And it also happens to be Christian!
What if instead of dividing up the church we saw the great potential of having tens of thousands of communities where we worked in new ways to offer a witness? What difference might be made regarding our ecological crises? What if we used funds for community environmental renewal ministries and didn’t funnel everyone though some sausage-making congregational development matrix? What might we learn from economists? Health Care specialists? What new patterns of citizenry? — make that discipleship — might be modeled? Might United Methodists seek to live more fully into our heritage and be way-finders to the peaceable kingdom? Well that is a dream that certainly extends beyond my life time.