God is not yet done with the United Methodist Church, our mission is still alive. As we approach General Conference, we are constantly being told by one side that the denomination is unsustainable, unity is impossible and that it’s time to provide a different exit path for those that seek to live by themselves. This campaign involves a lot of misinformation presented as ‘alternative facts’, and in most cases forgetting who we are. We are God’s people, a church, called to live by the example of Christ and share the good news of Christ to all.
My great grandmother was one of the fervent United Methodists when missionaries started preaching in the now called Sankuru Province of the Democratic Republic of Congo. She gave herself to Christ and joyously served the church till her last breath. Her remains are buried in a United Methodist Mission and on the tombstone is the Cross and Flame, the logo of our denomination. She never had formal education, but could read scripture, preach and translate thanks to the work of missionaries in that part of the country.
When looking at the United Methodist Church in my mother’s village, I am reminded of my great grandmother’s work, selfless service to share the good news to locations where one can’t reach in the comfort of a car. She lived at a time when women weren’t allowed to serve as clergy in our denomination, it was wrong, I don’t know how she felt about it, but am thankful that through her and The United Methodist Church, many people in the village have come to know Christ.
As the current conversation in our denomination, threatening the unity of Christ’s body goes on, I always think about the logo on her tombstone. Will I be the one to take the logo down because we can’t agree that God’s grace is available to all and that our disagreements isn’t imperative to God’s continued work of salvation? What will I say to the generations to come in my family about the cross and flame on her tombstone?
There are friends who claim that our current disagreement on human sexuality have reached irreconcilable levels. I disagree with that view, and no one has provided sufficient evidence as to why this is important for our mission as a church and why the current exit path in the discipline should be replaced. All we hear is the desire by some to fragment the body of Christ.
For those saying we need an exit plan, is this an admission to be holier than thou and the need to closet ourselves to comfortable circles of friendship or it is rooted in the understanding that it helps us to boldly proclaim the gospel that we are all created in the beautiful image of God and belong to him, not some, but all of us.
I don’t think moral equivalencies are applicable everywhere, but I can’t deny the application of knowledge acquired from other experiences to our current debate. I have the privilege to meet and interact with people who lived through the Belgian Colonial rule in my country, considered one of the worst and most brutal experiences during the colonial era. I always asked them what it meant for them to be free under colonial rule and why they didn’t take the route of revenge. The message is clear, we are called to live together, unanimous agreement isn’t an imperative to our understanding of humanity. We have forgiven those that have considered us subhuman, not because we lack the ability to revenge, but because we recognize that our lives are tied to one another. We are humans above all, people who at times get it wrong, but God has been so gracious enough to redeem us before we could even recognize Him. Had the marginalized always sought for revenge, our world would not have peace.
I hear that those pushing for the a new exit plan, are doing so based on self-created, preemptive fear of the unknown, assuming that everyone else is filled with a spirit of revenge. I don’t think that’s the case, above all, we are a church, called to be gracious unto one another in our weaknesses and failures. Fear of revenge cannot be the basis of making decisions crucial to our ministries.
As I hear some claim that unity is impossible, I think of the many places where forgiveness and reconciliation helped people achieve their goals. I don’t agree with my family on everything, but that doesn’t provide me an excuse to go apart from my siblings, for I know that family ties may stretch but never break. Our United Methodist DNA is thicker than water and can withstand the pressure of the time. Our collective ministries with the poor, marginalized and evangelism to areas where many have abandoned is much stronger and effective when we are together.
The impact of schism or an exit plan with a lower bar than currently provided in the discipline will be disastrous for local churches and annual conferences. Providing an exit path as advocated by some will entail the need to vote at local churches, creating winners and losers, when the people in our pews are coming not reach a unanimous agreement on how we view one another but to hear the good news that Christ is indeed alive and at work right now. Many of the people in our pews come to worship God, not because we agree on everything, but they have been called by God to bear witness, serve Him and others through this church, denying those people an opportunity to faithfully respond to God’s call isn’t Christian.
By asking local churches to vote, the church will become an instrument to divide families and communities instead of unite. I think of what will happen to the small churches in rural communities, where the United Methodist Church is the only church in the area and have a pastor thanks to our connectional system. Forcing such a church to take a vote will not be a missional decision. A lot can be said about this, but what I know is that the current exit plan in our Book of Discipline is mission-focused, seeking to continue God’s transformative work in our communities.
To me, an exit plan means undoing the work of great grandmother in my village, which I don’t think is a blessed endeavor and when I look across continents where our denomination is present, mine is not an isolated case. I will not be the one to dig her remains to a new location or change the tombstone, which I think is the case for many United Methodists who will be forced to take urns of their parents, grandparents or other family members out of the columbarium of local churches that seek to exit and be closeted to themselves.
Trusting in the wisdom and leadership our bishops, I am reminded of the words of one of our bishops: 2019 will not change us; it will reveal us and the important question is who you choose to be. I choose to be a United Methodist who recognizes God’s continued work of salvation through our local churches and ministries across the world, called to live together, not because of unanimous agreement on everything but knowing that God is and will continue to use us to make disciples for the transformation of the world.