A Pastor’s Reflections on the Upcoming Special Session of General Conference
A Year of Mixed Emotions
This year has been eventful. In January my family experienced great heartache and sadness when my youngest brother, Kenny, took his own life. The ensuing months have reminded me of what I often tell others: 1) grief does not just go away with time and, 2) it is experienced differently by everyone. The good news is that over time things often can get better, though it is equally true that things will never be the same.
In the same year that started with such pain, I was later greeted with news of great joy – that unto us and the larger Baker family, a child would be born. My oldest daughter is expecting to give birth to her first child sometime in February of 2019. Denise and I will experience our own first: becoming grandparents. I have discovered my Advent reflections this year have been deepened by this very personal preparation and anticipation of new life and new possibilities just around the corner.
A Special Session of GC is Coming
Experiencing mixed emotions and learning to adjust to new realities might well be the two things that best sum up my life in 2018. It is from this personal space that I have been reflecting on next year’s much anticipated Special Session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, to be held in St. Louis, Missouri from February 23-26. The conference will be meeting for the sole purpose of clarifying our denomination’s position on LGBTQ inclusion and ordination. The work of the Commission on the Way Forward has lifted up three possible options for addressing this issue, which can be read in great detail here. For those who do not want to wade through all 93 pages of the full report, here is a UM NEWS article that provides a summary.
For non-Methodist readers or those new to Methodism in local churches all over the country, this may be the first you have heard of this special gathering in early 2019. For other Methodists who are “wired-in,” there seems to be little else worthy of discussion. For still others, and for the sake of discussion I’ll call them the “non-anxious but interested and invested majority,” there has been other work and ministry garnering much of our attention in the local church this year. For this third group, of which I count myself one, the issues and specific petitions before the upcoming session are not deemed unimportant to doctrine, common life, and ministry, but neither do they (or should they) constitute the sole focus of our denomination’s time and energy.
Reflecting on an old Fable
I mentioned earlier that I am reflecting on this conference from a very personal place. I have mixed emotions about all three of the main proposals being brought before our church. I am also certain that everyone who still wants to be called “United Methodist” on February 27th will likely have to adjust to a new reality (even if the conference decides to do nothing). What will that new reality look like? Only God knows. But here are some things I have learned this year that I find helpful for this moment. To unpack some of my thoughts, I want to share a well-known fable that might serve as a modern day parable for our current situation:
Chicken Little likes to walk in the woods. She likes to look at the trees. She likes to smell the flowers. She likes to listen to the birds singing. One day while she is walking an acorn falls from a tree, and hits the top of her little head.
– My, oh, my, the sky is falling. I must run and tell the lion about it, – says Chicken Little and begins to run.
She runs and runs. By and by she meets the hen.
– Where are you going? – asks the hen.
– Oh, Henny Penny, the sky is falling and I am going to the lion to tell him about it.
– How do you know it? – asks Henny Penny.
– It hit me on the head, so I know it must be so, – says Chicken Little.
– Let me go with you! – says Henny Penny. – Run, run.
So the two run and run until they meet Ducky Lucky.
– The sky is falling, – says Henny Penny. – We are going to the lion to tell him about it.
– How do you know that? – asks Ducky Lucky.
– It hit Chicken Little on the head, – says Henny Penny.
– May I come with you? – asks Ducky Lucky.
– Come, – says Henny Penny.
So all three of them run on and on until they meet Foxey Loxey.
– Where are you going? – asks Foxey Loxey.
– The sky is falling and we are going to the lion to tell him about it, – says Ducky Lucky.
– Do you know where he lives? – asks the fox.
– I don’t, – says Chicken Little.
– I don’t, – says Henny Penny.
– I don’t, – says Ducky Lucky.
– I do, – says Foxey Loxey. – Come with me and I can show you the way.
He walks on and on until he comes to his den.
– Come right in, – says Foxey Loxey.
They all go in, but they never, never come out again.
This fable has often been referenced as an illustration of overreaction and its consequences. An acorn fell on Chicken Little’s head and she immediately assumed the sky was falling instead of a tree going through its natural course of seedling dispersal. What begins as one person’s angst and skewed perception quickly turns to group hysteria based on the cognitive bias referred to as the “bandwagon effect.” Chicken Little’s perception quickly becomes Henny Penny’s truthiness, which had subsequent impact on Ducky Lucky’s “anchoring bias.” By the time this story reaches Foxey Loxey, confirmation bias turned to full out fake news, because this time a lie is told with full knowledge of its untruth: “I do … come with me and I can show you.” We never do meet the lion, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what Foxey Loxey likely had for lunch. Roast duck anyone? Perhaps a dash of Cornish hen? Fried chicken on the side?
The Sky is Falling?
Reflecting on this fable and the 2019 GC, a question comes to mind. Is GC 2019 the UMC equivalent of the sky falling? Or is this the fabled acorn on the head? Does our future course lead us toward a fox’s den or a lion’s throne? Is this the end of the United Methodist Church as we know it? Is this part of the natural course of our Church as we continue to wrestle how to be faithful to Christ admist our current cultural context? A bit of both? Of neither?
I don’t know the answers to such musings, but there are some things I do know. I have gleaned a few insights from this past year of personal highs and lows. I share them with you in case they might prove useful to others.
Truth on February 22nd and February 27th
What I can say with confidence during this season is what I know will be true the day before the GC Special Session (22nd) and what will be true the day afterward (27th):
- Christ is Lord of the Church. <— (that was a period there) … I love the United Methodist Church and I am a committed believer in Jesus Christ. I am thoroughly Wesleyan in my theology. I hope and pray the UMC will continue to not just survive but truly thrive for generations to come – reaching out with renewed commitment to the hurting, the lost, the last, and the least with the Good News of the Gospel. Having said that, I am also convinced that even if the denomination shifts, changes, declines, grows, or disappears – the universal Church of Jesus Christ and her mission will continue. (Even if the sky is about to fall … though I might remind us that the UMC is not the equivalent of the sky in this fable!).
- I have deep and abiding spiritual friendships on both sides of this issue. In my own home conference, the North Carolina Conference, two of the most visible voices on different sides of this debate I count as great friends: the Rev. Paul Stallsworth and the Rev. Laurie Hays Coffman. I have known both of them for over 20 years. I hesitated to mention their names here but then I thought again about how impersonal and distant we often make this discussion. I desire to be in full communion with both of them, and not only them, but the myriad of other friends I have cultivated over my years in ministry and the larger connection. Those friendships include people of different orientation, age, and theological conviction on LGTBQ issues. Regardless of what happens at GC, I remained committed to sustaining and cultivating such diverse friendships in my life. Without them my spiritual journey would be impoverished – of that I have no doubt.
- I will continue to be in ministry for and with all people. Our current language in the UM Discipline on the practice of homosexuality states that it is incompatible with Christian teaching but that Methodists are still resolved in their commitment to be in ministry for and with all people. Even this language has caused controversy in local churches, including my own. When the church unapologetically welcomes all, some folks vote with their feet. I am committed to being in ministry for and with all and that commitment will remain regardless of what happens next February. To be clear, and to cause frustration to some, that means I remain committed to being in ministry for and with people of different sexual orientation and their families as well as those opposed to full inclusion. Is that messy? Yes. I have always found ministry so.
There are more things I know to be true on both sides of next year’s GC, but as I mentioned earlier – there are other pressing ministry concerns to attend to today. We are literally digging out from a massive snow storm and I need to meet with a family this week who has just lost a young child to cancer.
I have mixed emotions about what may result from next year’s general conference, but I am not worried about skies or acorns. I will, however, pray in earnest with you as we look to the hills (and sky) from whence cometh our help … knowing that our help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth (and sky and acorn). (Psalm 121:1) That help will be there on both February 22 and February 27. (and the days in-between … thanks be to God)
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