Jesus Never Took a Vote

1972 ConferenceFor Lent, this year, I had a plan.

It wasn’t intended to be scriptural—as in lectionary-based—though the Bible always lights my way or lurks in the shadows whenever I muse about faith.

My plan involved the pivotal, essential, and outward actions of my decades-long ministry. I wanted to wonder about weddings and funerals, serving communion or heading into hospitals to visit the sick and dying. Maybe next week I’ll renew my efforts.

And yet, not now. The plan seemed swell a few weeks ago. Safe. Nice. Tidy.

Hey, I like plans. Through most of my ordained life, I placed long-range sermon planning on my calendar. I once took a cheap, personal retreat and lived for nearly a week with my seminary pal Mark (and his loverly wife Bonnie) at their parsonage in Reno. They went about their daily chores, while I fussed over future sermons. I recall going with Mark to a Carmelite mission tucked in the rocky ridges above the city. There we spent contemplative hours with the nuns. Later, on the night of that same day, we bought tickets to a popular show somewhere in Reno. Maybe a famous magician was the featured “big deal,” but here’s my roll-your-eyes confession about what I really remember: the parade of scantily-dressed women performing to distract us while the headliner did his tricks or treats. Nuns and nudity in the same day . . . all for the sake of sermon planning!

Memories are fun.

The prior week, with its news, was not fun.

My church, which officially began in 1968 when the United Methodist Church emerged from the union of the Evangelical United Brethren Church and Methodist Church, turned 50 last year. We’re young, though we claim a Wesleyan history rooted in England’s 18th century, linked to the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s, to Jesus’ 2,000-year-old good news, and with the holy hopes attributed to Abraham, the “father” of three faiths in the distant corners of human history.

Yeah, we United Methodist are new and as old as dirt.

And, in the last week, we have likely cracked our denominational foundation. In a special General Conference, with the sole purpose of talking about sex (no, not semi-naked women on a Reno stage), we did something that Jesus never did: took a vote. Actually, a bunch of votes.

Not long after the birth of the United Methodist Church, we added a spritz of verbiage to a proposed section of our vaunted Social Principals. Famously (for denominational insiders), a 1972 General Conference debate about a stance cautiously affirming gays and lesbians added a sentence to the upbeat recommendation:

“The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”

Those were the divisive words, added by counting Yeas and Nays in ’72, that garnered the crucial “Yes” from the assembly of believers. Kind and cruel words lived in the same paragraph. We’ve argued about ‘em ever since. Every four years, at each General Conference, there have been angry exchanges, accusations, political maneuvering, fervent prayers, holy discernment, rampant hypocrisy, and a few minor additions to the language.

With February of 2019, all that has changed.

Would the church that brands itself as having open hearts, open minds, open doors allow a broader, more flexible approach?

Nope.

What’s next?

I don’t know.

In truth, and here I’ll state the obvious, this controversy has never been about “sex.” While we are a culture with great discomfort about sex (with a terse nod to our Puritan forebears), our deeper issues are the usual suspects: Biblical interpretation and control. Who has the voice? Who has the votes? Who gets to say that it’s the sun rising (poetic), or the earth spinning (factual), that creates first light? Let’s vote on how to interpret the day’s dawn!

My theological education, personal experiences, and scriptural reflections lead me to “interpret” that the Bible says zilch about homosexuality. Not a solitary word. Not one short or long verse. Others, possibly a majority of Christians, would claim otherwise. Am I interpreting this in a wrong way? Do numbers determine what is correct? For me, love your neighbor is the headline and the small print, it’s the boldest public statement and the intimate way of daily, faithful life. Regardless of interpretation, everything is defined by Jesus’ urgent, unfettered call to love. And to keep loving.

And to keep loving.

And to keep loving . . .

And so, we enter Lent. My plans, as it often happens, now hold little interest for me.

Lent, a 40-day journey of self-reflection, piety, and penitence looms.

Who am I? What will become of my young/old church? Who is in control?

As always, I have questions.

Answers? Not so much . . .

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Top image from The Great Plains United Methodist Conference

These words from my regional slice of the United Methodist pie:

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4 Comments

  1. Larry, i cry, too. Our denomination is headed in the same direction. I’m on Theology and Social Concerns Committee. We were able to stall a bit but the inevitable is coming. Talking about votes – we are outnumbered. P

    1. Pat:

      Thanks for the comment. I fear our tears will continue. But, as Martin Luther King Jr. said (and as I believe), “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

  2. Thank you for your thoughts on this painful situation. As a retired UM pastor, while I’m disappointed by the recent General Conference, I have to remind myself that God will eventually have the last word on all matters. I found the video of the Western Jurisdiction a source of hope. Thanks so much for including it.

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