Commentary by Rev. Kathy Neary

Far from the Mind of Christ

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 2:5

Here’s my quick summary of what The United Methodist Church went through in February. We had a representative body vote on rules that set standards for acceptable behavior related to human sexuality. By a slim margin, we decided by majority vote that it was God’s will to exclude people who identify, or are labeled by others, as LGBTQIA from full participation in the Church, and to consolidate control over all people in the Church within one small body, the Council of Bishops. This resulted in grievous harm to everyone in the Church and to people who have never stepped foot in our churches. It also resulted in confirming for all that United Methodism is really, really messed up.

Because of these actions, there has been talk of schism: various groups have declared that it would be better to leave The UMC and form a more just and loving new denomination. I can understand this reaction: it is hard to be part of the body of Christ that is so harmful to people. I think schism is not the answer, however. Schism would draw us further away from knowing and seeking to do God’s will.

Rev. Kathy Neary

The United Methodist Church is not God’s will nor is any other denomination of Christianity God’s will. Someone once said that every time we mention the word “denomination” we should get down on our knees and beg God’s forgiveness. Few themes are more consistent in the New Testament than the theme of unity or oneness. Christians quickly lost that thread of thought, and so we have the situation now in which it is almost impossible to count the different denominations and sects of Christianity. 

Dividing the body of Christ is sinful. Were we to further divide the body of Christ by forming yet one more denomination, no matter how good our intentions, we compound the sin.

Seeking to maintain unity is only one reason not to divide the Church further. Denominationalism is enmeshed in a dualistic system of win/lose and right/wrong. Since General Conference 2019 I have heard comments like these: “we lost the battle, but the war isn’t over,” and “we are right about God’s will, and they are wrong.” Conversations since have stayed on the topic of strategies for “winning” the Church over to “our side,” and even worse, “defeating” the others. As long as we operate from a mindset of winning and losing, we will never move toward having the mind that was in Christ Jesus.

A path forward for us must not include schism. I don’t believe we will ever see the end to denominations, but surely we shouldn’t make the situation worse! There is a path forward for us, but it involves embracing all those attributes of the Christian life we hate: becoming weak, foolish, and despised. (We may have that last one down pat already.)  

The path forward does not include us triumphing over evil, or even being right.  That is God’s role. Instead, the path forward is love. Foolish love, expressed by weak and despised people.

Part II: Finding Nineveh

In the story of Jonah, we learn about a reluctant prophet sent to preach to people he considers enemies. God has compassion for the people of Nineveh who have strayed from God’s righteous ways, so God sends Jonah to preach repentance to them. Jonah is reluctant to go, but after a trip through the belly of a whale, Jonah finally answers God’s call, preaches repentance to the Ninevites, and then is disgusted when the Ninevites repent and God shows mercy to them. Jonah really wanted God to smite those Ninevites.  

I recently heard a great sermon based on the story of Jonah. The sermon was about God’s mercy, and how we can’t contain or understand God’s mercy. My mind wandered though—which I’m sure never happens to people when they listen to my sermons—and I became focused on the idea of Nineveh. 

Nineveh is a symbol for the place that God is calling us to, a place we absolutely do not want to go to. In the Hebrew scriptures, God is always sending prophets to places and people they would rather not visit. Unfortunately for us, God doesn’t care about the prophets’ desires. God is focused on helping people understand God’s love and desire for relationship. 

I began to wonder where our Nineveh is, in this time of suffering. Where is God sending us to declare God’s love and desire for relationship? In the immediate aftermath of GC 2019, it was a no-brainer that we should care for those of the LGBTQIA communities who were beaten so savagely by the words and actions of that conference. This call to reach out with love and unconditional welcome will not end any time soon. In addition, we should come alongside LGBTQIA folks in whatever ways we are welcome, to learn about their experiences and to follow their lead in creatively resisting the oppressive policies of The UMC. All of us need to recognize that LGBTQIA folks will ultimately make their own ways forward, choosing paths that are life-giving for them.

Now that a bit of time has passed, though, I’m sensing another calling from God.  This call will not resonate with everyone, nor should it. I think that some of us progressives are being called to preach the good news of God’s love to the traditionists.  

I firmly believe that people who want to deny others the unconditional love and welcome that God offers have probably not experienced the love of God themselves. These folks need to be loved into an experience of God’s love. God is sending progressives to proclaim the love of God to traditionalists. Our Nineveh is all the people not yet transformed by God’s love, including ourselves. It will be much easier to answer this call if we are all members of the same Church. That is definitely not what I signed up for!  

Rather than focusing on winning an argument, or defeating our enemies in a theological battle, God wants us to love our enemies so they are open to transformation out of this dichotomy of friends/enemies. (Where have I heard that before?) 

I will be the first to state that loving our enemies is the slowest, the most inefficient, and the most foolish approach to growing the Kingdom of God. It gets worse, though. We need to love our not-yet-transformed sisters and brothers without falling into the habits of the old dualistic system of win/lose or right/wrong dichotomies. We love our enemies, and God does all the rest, in terms of transformation. In the process, God transforms us.  

We can and must be creative with our love. I have two suggestions: I know there are more and better suggestions out there, and I look forward to hearing them. 

First, I would offer the One Church Plan as a petition at GC 2020, but not engage in any advocacy or debate whatsoever about the plan. No lobbying, no signs or placards, no demonstrations for inclusion should happen: only people silently praying for everyone to know the love of God and act accordingly. Debating God’s love doesn’t make sense, and remember, we are not in this to win or lose an argument. Also engaging in debate opens up the opportunity for people to say terribly hurtful things, and we’ve had enough of that. Three or four of these hurtful speeches will happen, and we can pray our way through those. Then we vote, and whatever happens, happens. The outcome will be in God’s hands, where it should be. We repeat this strategy at the next General Conference, and the next, until God transforms enough hearts to transform the Church.

Second, we should form contemplative prayer groups that include people on all sides of this issue. The purpose of the prayer groups would be to pray silently with each other, asking only to know God’s love. We should keep at it till all know God’s love and see where that leads. Of course, a group that includes people on all sides of the issue describes every UM congregation I know. That means I’m suggesting every UM congregation develop habits of contemplative prayer and let the love of God do its work. 

Here’s a vision: every Sunday worship service in every UM church includes twenty minutes of silent prayer time.  

Weak, foolish and despised: that is our path forward.

Rev. Kathy Neary serves as Transitional Ministry Developer for the Pacific Northwest Conference of The United Methodist Church.

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