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.

The Need for Disagreement

With a group of United Methodist pastors saying that differences in the church cannot be reconciled, I think it needs to be said that not all differences need to be reconciled.  Difference and dissension can be good things.  They can lead to truth.

I have been reading David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest.  As I read Halberstam’s understanding of how the United States became involved in Vietnam, one striking theme is the desire by key government officials to stop dissent.  The military and political leaders actively squashed most voices who opposed ever increasing military and political involvement in Vietnam.  People were promoted for saying what the elites wanted to hear, not what needed to be said.

Quashing of dissent led to many negative consequences.  Truth was lost/ignored in the decision making process.  Quality leaders were burned by those in power and their expertise was consequently driven out of public service.  The country became more and more involved in Vietnam without really weighing what that meant.  Politicians and military leaders made decisions and then future conversations/reports/subsequent decisions were made to conform to the direction the previous decision’s desired.

The call for schism (no matter how pleasant we make it sound by using words like amicable separation) is a call to quash dissent.  We are basically saying that we no longer want to be in relationships with those who disagree with us.  Their voices are no longer welcome in our presence.  Homogeneity is our mantra.  Actions that make us pause and discern have become a burden.

Schism when wrapped with a bow and gilded with flowery language might sound good.  There are people in the church who are unhappy with what others are doing in the church.  It is a painful time to be United Methodists.  There are alternatives to schism.

As God’s people we could choose to live in tension.  Wrestle with our differences.  Experience the blessings and hurts similar to what Jacob experienced at Jabbok.  Live with many questions.  Wait until God’s will becomes clear.  Learn to love those we disagree with.  Turn the other cheek when others act in ways that hurt us.

We could also choose schism.  Drive out those who disagree with us.  Live in certainty of our own rightness.  Make the people of God choose sides.  Frame those who oppose us in the most demeaning ways.  Practice instant gratification instead of patiently waiting on God’s timing.

When we drive out the dissenters, when we are surrounded by people who all agree with us (at least initially), will we be closer to the truth of God?  The apostle Paul said that we can only see dimly now.  Paul tells the church that in the midst of conflict we should choose the most excellent way of love as our way of being.  Will we see clearer when no one offers an alternate view?  Is schism choosing love?

Some might argue that choosing schism is an act of love.  They might contend the Spirit would want us to do this.  A call for schism is basically saying some of us are on God’s side, some of us are not, and we no longer want to be in association with those who are on the wrong side.

Who is on the Spirit’s side though?  Is the desire for schism from our sinful nature or from the Spirit at work in our lives?  After reading Galatians 5, can we say it is sin or the Spirit that puts in the heart of some the call for schism?  A call for schism in the life of the church comes from a questionable place.

Will our differences be worked out in the short term?  No.  The truth is that they do not have to be.  We can be the church and disagree with each other.  Anyone who draws a line in the sand has only much power as we give the person.  My suggestion is that embrace disagreement and unity instead of agreement and disunity.

Disagreement and dissension can be positive forces in the life of the church.  If we choose healthy ways to resolve our conflict and practice good communication, we can live in tension.  We can show grace in our hurts.  The United Methodist church could model for the world what it means to act in love even in the midst of disagreement.  With patience, time, and by the grace of God, we might ultimately discern a course of action that we all can agree is from God. In the meantime, we could focus on our love of Christ and our purpose of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

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