Messiness

The United Methodist Reporter featured a blog post by Scott Fritzsche entitled “Breaking up is hard to do (Let’s Admit it is time).”  The title aptly sums the essence of the post.  I would politely contend though that he is wrong.  Breaking up is obviously an option, but it is not the only option.  While it may be the most expedient possibility, there are other possibilities out there.  Why is the time now right?

Mr. Fritzsche frames an issue in the life of the church as an intractable dichotomy that cannot be resolved.  While acknowledging there might be deeper issues, he focuses on what he calls “sexual ethics and morality.”  In his exploration of this issue, he uses an analogy of marriage.  The question he shapes his argument with is “Can a marriage really survive with two diametrically opposed views on sexual morality?”  I respectfully disagree.  I challenge two aspects of his argument: the first is whether the marriage analogy is appropriate, and second that there are only two sides on the issue of sexual ethics and morality.

First, United Methodists commitments to each other are not the same as the commitments between two married persons.  Any United Methodist can withdraw from the church.  No one is legally obligated to be part of the church.  Persons wanting to leave can inform their pastors or bishops.

Leaving a marriage in the United States is more difficult.  It requires lawyers and the legal system.  If being a member of the United Methodist church is so onerous that dealing with the messiness of the church is too much too bear, the person can leave.  Legally, a person cannot just leave a marriage in the United States.  If we, as individuals, are together as a church, it is because we want to be on some level, not because of some previous commitment that would make leaving legally difficult.

While marriages can have more than two partners, Mr. Fritzsche frames his analogy in terms of a two partner marriage.  Marriage in this context is between two persons.  There are no two analogous persons in the United Methodist church.  The church is a partnership between millions of people around the globe.  We all freely entered it, and we are all free to leave it.

Secondly, there are not two diametrically opposed groups in the United Methodist church.  United Methodist views on any subject are different and fit on a spectrum.  Even on the issue of sexual ethics and morality people’s views in the church are varied and do not fit neatly into two categories.  It would be easier if there were only two groups with perspectives that were unchanging and the same on every issue.

Our varied views, however, are not set in stone.  They may change overtime.  A marriage might not survive if two partners have different understandings of sexual morality and act on those differences, but we are a church of millions of people with potentially millions of different understandings on any given issue.  We can survive and have survived with differing understandings on many things.

Mr. Fritzsche’s slavery example is problematic too.  The split of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1844 did not occur because one day a bishop decided he wanted to own slaves.  It is more complicated and nuanced than that.  Just because the Methodist Episcopal Church split over slavery, does not mean that the United Methodist Church has to split over the wedge issue of sexual ethics and morality (or whatever wedge issue might be used).

It is still not clear to me why we are at the point of breakup.  Why is the time now right?  Mr. Fritzsche may not be willing to live with with the messiness of our current situation, but no one is making him.  If it is really that important that he is part of a church that is not messy, then he can leave.  Not all of us want a separation.  There is an alternative to separation, and that is to work through the messiness.

Messiness allows to practice our discipleship.  Praying for our enemies.  Loving those who hurt us.  Depending on the Spirit.  Waiting for God’s time.  Practicing discernment, self-reflection, and repentance.  Remembering and exemplifying what will last in the age to come: faith, love, and hope.  What if our disagreements are not problems to be solved, but tensions to live with that create opportunities to grow and be changed?

This is not easy work.  Being a disciple with other disciples can be challenging.  Human relationships are often messy.  There may be deeper and more intractable issues that Mr. Fritzsche hints at in the first and last paragraphs of his post, but I would contend that the perception of intractability might only be a condition of an unwillingness to live with the blessings and hurts of messiness.

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Chaos in the world brings uneasiness, but it also allows the opportunity for creativity and growth.” ©2010 Copyright Kate Ter Haar. Licensed Under Creative Commons.

Living in Tension

Folks on Twitter today are disappointed that the bishops of the UMC did not come up with a plan to save the UMC.  For faithful people who care deeply about Jesus and the church, this seems a bit weird.  We have a savior and the bishops are not Jesus.  Why should the bishops be the ones to save the church?

Salvation in the Bible takes time.  God did not immediately free the slaves in Egypt.  When the people of Israel were being oppressed by their neighbors, God would not instantly give them a judge.  People would often have to live in tension.

God would even sometimes create tension.  I have been leading a Bible study on 1 Samuel during the season of Easter and beyond.  It amazes me that God would anoint two kings.  Two different people were competing for the love and loyalty of the people – both anointed by God.  Saul, David, and the people of Israel would have to live in tension.  It would take many years for the definitive will of God to be made known on what direction God wanted to go.

When we read the Bible, we forget how much time passes between events.  How often people had to live in tension with the problems they faced and the hope that God would save them from those problems.  How long did the Israelites live in Babylon as captives?  God’s will and God’s desires are often only seen clearly overtime.

The United Methodist church is not the first church to have conflict.  Paul writes to the Corinthians about their conflicts over spiritual gifts.  They had real issues on how to use and express their gifts in worship and the life of the community.  The situation was fraught with tension.

Paul did not give them a simple solution.  Instead, he offered them a way through the tension.  Most Christians know 1 Corinthians 13.  It is Paul’s solution for how to navigate the tensions the Corinthians were facing.

What Paul offered the church is the excellent way of being in the world called love.  They might not agree with each other, but they could act in love towards each other.  Instead of telling them what to do, he offered them a way of being.  Would this way solve all their tensions?  No, but it would help them stay in community with each other.

As a church, we do not need more solutions or ideas.  We need to learn the way of love and how to live with tension.  Paul gives the hallmarks of love in 1 Corinthians 13.  He encourages them to act in love because we only see dimly now.  If we do not know everything, and we cannot see everything clearly, then we must humbly act in love.

The things of this age will pass away according to Paul.  Spiritual gifts, victories, and even denominations will come to an end.  What ultimately lasts and what ultimately matters are ways of being in Christ – faith, love, and hope.  General Conference, the bishops, even twitter, cannot offer a solution to solve the tensions we face.  It may take many years for these tensions to be resolved.  What we can do, and must do, if we want to be a church and a witness to our faith in Jesus, is act in love.

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Tensión. ©2009 Copyright Rosalba Tarazona. Licensed Under Creative Commons.

Tension

In Andy Stanley’s last leadership podcast, Andy raised the issue of conflicts vs tensions.  Conflicts and tensions are often conflated with each other.  Conflicts are situations that can and need to be resolved.  Tensions are situations that need to be lived with.  Stanley contends that tension can be healthy in the life of an organization.  He gives three questions to be used as criteria for determining whether something is a conflict or tension.  The three questions are: 1) does the problem/tension keep resurfacing? 2) are there mature advocates on both sides? and 3) are the two sides really interdependent?

One major situation in the life of the United Methodist church are issues related to human sexuality.  I have been wrestling with is the question is this situation a conflict that needs to be solved, or a tension that we could live with for the foreseeable future?  When we identify a situation as a conflict, it becomes a problem that we need to solve.  Sides are formed and anyone on the wrong side is exasperating the problem.  It is hard to live with a situation where it is seen as a problem.

Framing a situation as a problem is seductive.  Problems need to be solved.  If you can name a problem, people then want to know how you think we should solve the problem.  Naming problems in ways that appeals to others builds support for your solution(s).  If you can make the problem into a crisis you can create real power.  See Professor Thomas Long’s introduction in his 2002 edition of Polity, Practice, and the Mission of the United Methodist Church.

A case could be made that the issues related to human sexuality in the United Methodist church are tensions and not conflicts using Stanley’s questions.  The issues related to human sexuality keep resurfacing.  While there are many sides involved in this tension, there are mature advocates on the different sides.  Stanley’s third question is the hardest to conceptualize in terms of our issues with human sexuality in the UMC.

With many different sides, each might be claiming the same ground and the same values.  The Bible, God’s truth, and God’s grace could be claimed by the many different sides of this situation.  Interdependency then is hard to prove.  In the podcast, Stanley gives tensions such as spending time at work versus spending time with family, or the tension between quality versus stewardship.  Siding with one of the aspects of the tension would ultimately undermine that aspect overtime.  Spend too much time with your family and you lose your job.  If you spend too much time with your job, you ultimately lose your family.

Since there are so many different sides related to the situation of human sexuality in the church it is hard to prove interdependency.  Many of the sides offer various solutions.  The solutions and sides that would try to solve the problem may find that they are undermining their position and side in unexpected ways.  If this is over power (whether we will admit it or not) in the church, will they really have more power if we adopt their solution?  If this is over God’s truth, what truths and ideas will be lost if they achieve what they want?  If this is over God’s grace, will God’s grace be better exemplified by the church siding with their position?

Tensions instead of being solved, need to be managed.  Living with a tension is not an easy job.  We all can get frustrated and upset in the process.  As we wrestle with grace, truth, and power, we will feel like others are wrong in their understanding of grace, truth, and power  Yet, if it is a tension that we agree to live with, we can work to acknowledge the various sides and that their perspectives and concerns are needed.  While we cannot solve the tension, we can work to do the most good while living with it, and reduce the most harm from it.  In the process of living with the tension, we can model love and offer a witness to the world of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

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Tension on Warp. ©2008 Copyright LollyKnit. Licensed Under Creative Commons.