By Patrick Scriven, Director of Communications and Young People’s Ministry

Last night, my wife and I were talking about some of our colleagues. You see, we are a part of a denomination, The United Methodist Church, that is hell-bent on its own destruction. Schism is the trending topic of the day with each week bringing news of yet another partisan group slinging accusations and/or demands that must be met, or else.

We were talking about our colleagues because we have both had opportunities to work with people with whom we strongly disagree. We have grown from these experiences, and felt our collective work was better for it. In contrast, we also know individuals, with whom we share much on the surface, but whose mere proximity yields anxiety and frustration rather than than the synergy one might presume.

It makes me wonder if we aren’t heading in exactly the wrong direction when we talk about dividing the church along stark ideological lines.

depth-smallImagine for a moment that beliefs are like different parts of our big planet Earth. If we were to ask someone who never travelled beyond the arctic region what the Earth was like, we might expect to hear something about snow and polar bears. Ask another person, this one having grown up on a tropical island, and we would get a very different answer. Context, experience, and location make up so much of what we think we know on the surface.

But what if we were to give both individuals the machinery to dig a half-mile beneath their feet? If we were to ask them to describe their immediate surroundings now, we might be surprised to discover how similar their descriptions become.

Let me suggest for a moment that the problems we are encountering as a United Methodist Church are poorly framed when they are so tightly focused on having the right beliefs or social positions. Many of us already know that the Earth isn’t just cold, and that it isn’t just tropical. That knowledge doesn’t seem to keep us from picking our favorite places to live and declaring other areas as undesirable or even uninhabitable (despite the fact that people often live there).

Our United Methodist problem is better understood as a byproduct of our myriad discipleship issues. The loudest voices in the room speak only to what they know (the surface) and show no obvious concern for the wellbeing of those they declare to be wrong. Our fights are relegated to debates about weather and fauna with too few displaying the capacity to understand the terra firm upon which they tread.

I’m friends with a variety of people on Facebook. Because of my biases, I’m sometimes given pause when a conservative friend posts a wise saying by the Dalai Lama or Mahatma Gandhi. I shouldn’t be so shocked though. My conservative friends are just as capable, as some of my progressives ones, of arriving at the spiritual maturity necessary to appreciate wisdom whatever it source. And I know that the correlative is also true. My progressive friends who love posting Gandhi quotes sometimes lack the spiritual depth to acknowledge similar truth when it is uttered by voices they are predisposed to ignore or despise.

[quote_box_left]…or will we settle for a faith that fears diversity and demands uniformity?[/quote_box_left]The active choice before The United Methodist Church is one between the comforts of spiritual conformity and the challenges of a discipleship that demands that we go deeper, down underneath to a place where our experiences can (re)create a common vocabulary that can lead to new growth. Will we choose to be in such a covenant with sisters and brothers with whom we disagree, despite the discomfort that can occur, or will we settle for a faith that fears diversity and demands uniformity? Can we recognize how such relationships help us all to develop deeper understandings of the God who will always lie beyond our comprehension?

Jesus calls us to follow him and leave our nets behind. For many of his earlier followers, this was a call away from the ordinary life to an extraordinary one filled with personal risk, uncertainty, and also great purpose. Perhaps God is calling us today in a similar way.

May we each find the strength to leave behind our nets filled with our preferences, certainty, and pride. And when we do, let’s take up shovels to search again for that ever elusive treasure of great worth (Matthew 13:44-46).

Image Credit: Featured image sourced from Flickr user image “Rake & Shovel” by tanakawho.


  1. I was allowed to give the “missionary” speech to my original conference a few years ago (Central Illinois in 1993). I sensed it would be the only time I could address my colleagues. Here is one of the paragraphs from that speech: “The primary new word added to my vocabulary is the importance of holding persons of other faiths in esteem. Now I must confess that this is easier for me with some groups than others. It will be a real challenge to attempt to practice that in my own faith and life, for there are some representatives of other faiths that are very difficult to hold in esteem.” It is equally important for us to hold members of our own faith (who see things differently than do I) in equal esteem to others of other faiths.

    • Pastor John…has there ever been some kind of Conference promotion where one could receive a free shovel if a person worked towards loosening their perceptions and biases and tried to understand people different from them? Because a free shovel would be a great motivator…enlightenment is a up there too. You’re a gardener, I know this.

      • What I won’t do for a “free shovel”! Don’t know if that has been tried. I have not heard of it. The offering bucket Barbara Dadd Shaffer uses for Hope for the Children of Africa has a shovel attached, but it was just because they came that way. No great theological significance.

        Shovels are good for many things.

        I was just wondering if the word is mentioned in the Bible and it is. Fortunately I am off my two pound limit from rotator cuff surgery, so I was able to pick up a Concordance. It is mentioned too many times to repeat here, but I will quote one: Isaiah 30:24 The writer has just assured the people that they will weep no more. “God will give rain for the seed with which you sow the ground, and grain, the produce of the ground, which will be rich and plenteous. On that day your cattle will graze in broad pastures; and the oxen and donkeys that till the ground will eat silage, which has been winnowed with shovel and fork.”

        In Exodus the writer is describing what is needed for the altar of burnt offering: one needs pots, shovels, basics, forks and fire-pans. So shovels were essential for worship.

        Don’t think I will write a sermon on “shovels”, but it is reassuring to know that some “texts” are available.

    • John, thanks for sharing that. Several people have commented recently that some United Methodists are prone to treat people of other faiths better than those within the denim with whom they disagree. Perhaps this speaks to the difficulties we face with siblings and some identity conflicts we can externalize when dealing with others. Either way, thanks for the post.

  2. Rev. Scriven, when I read the title of your post I immediately had an idea of where you were going with “shovels”. I thought you were going to say that both (or all) sides of the issues should pick up a shovel (or rake or planter or whatever) and get to work serving people rather then argue about who is right or wrong. Don’t get me wrong because I loved your post, you make excellent points, and I totally agree with you. I still think we should all pick up a shovel and begin digging wells, home foundations, and furrows for food. Thank you.

    • Hey Gary, first, thanks for reading.

      I find myself indefensible against your comment, I probably should have gone there instead. What if I made this friendly amendment. I suspect we would all get along better if we simply tended to the work of helping people and, gasp, did it alongside one another! I’ve always found that the best relationships are formed in common service and I suspect we could work through some of our areas of conflict better with the mutual respect such service tends to engender.

  3. One and all. I was embarrassed at where my mind went when I first saw the reference to shovels. But have mercy on me, as I “harvest” truck loads of pit-washed cow manure to fertilize my gardens. Some might admit that there was some things that need to be “cleaned up” in our attempts at dialogue.

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